People gossip, people talk. We gossip about others, and we are gossiped about. As banal, inane, or innocent as gossip may seem, it hurts. Its unkind, unforgiving, ungenerous nature tears at the fabric of who we are together. As we approach the beginning of the year-end holiday season, we have new space to refine our attention and redirect energy spent on petty concerns toward more substantive, enriching, connective pursuits.
Gossip is so injuring precisely because it is nearly always reductive. Recently, I heard gossip about a young woman who is going through an unexpected divorce, another who fell pregnant while she was engaged. It struck me that gossip reduces, in the crudest way, the most complicated parts of other people’s lives without any knowledge of the details, the context, the grief, or the grace of these transitions. By purposefully ignoring nuance, gossip misses the ways in which joy and pain are consistently intertwined in human lives. Gossip exploits human vulnerability.
Gossip pollutes the water we all find ourselves swimming in, and these cultural waters are damn polluted these days. Celebrity gossip, Twitter wars, fake political ads, et cetera. We know it when we see it, and yet we consume it, as though through osmosis.
My theology professor, Willie Jennings, once told us as a class of ethics students, “The site of sin in the Bible is at the site of indirect address.” When Adam and Eve fall out of a unitive consciousness with God, they begin to talk about God, as if God is no longer there. Loving consciousness is not speculative or exploitative, but rather, responsive.
Gossip replaces love, support, understanding, doubt, concern, compassion with judgment. It makes statements about the lives of other people without any care for pain, loss, loneliness, or confusion, without respect for joy, love, connection, surprise, or even, responsibility.
My college anthropology professor once described gossip as a mechanism of “group bonding.” While this may be true in social behavior, I do not find it to be true at the level of our souls. Gossip does not bond us together; rather, it tears at the connections between us. It makes us more defended and defensive. It puts us on edge. It isolates the one surrounded by gossip, and makes the gossipers more afraid that if they make a mistake or a change they, too, will be out.
In the study of trauma informed care, practitioners seek to better respond to survivors of trauma by asking a better fundamental question. They shift paradigms of care founded on the question, “what is wrong with you?” to care founded on the question, “what happened to you?” In my life, some of the people I love the most have survived trauma that the broader world knows nothing about. The scars are hidden. When I think about the compassion I have for the people I love, I realize that compassion arises through love, through being known and seeking to know. Gossip is cheap, but love is worn.
We are woven of the experiences of our lives that are braided together. We are textured: formed by love and loss and gain and complication, by rude awakenings, by softening to understand, by our own pain and the pain of others, by healing and growing and starting again.
So instead of saying things like, “did you hear…?” and “well, rumors are spreading” and “what’s wrong with her,” narrow and shallow-minded ways of responding to other human beings let us instead practice expansive ways of being, of attending to and accompanying other people. Instead of talking about, talk to.
One of my favorite songs from the band Dawes reminds me, “It is hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.” But I would add, it is hard to judge anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.
As we find ourselves in many circles, around dinner tables, and religious services, in the coming months, we have many opportunities to live in deeper integrity and to form ways of being together that are countercultural – read: contemplative – and therefore, healing to us all.
People talk, but people also heal, and create, and grow together.