Do you know the difference between gossip and history? Do you know the difference between gossip and an entertaining story? Do you know the difference between gossip and a teaching story?
Gossip actually derives from the Old English godsibb (“god-kin”): a word for someone with whom you are linked through sponsorship at a baptism. Over the centuries, it gradually evolved to mean idle chatter, but especially mean-spirited chatter. We often make a distinction between “idle gossip” and “malicious gossip”, but all gossip is essentially unkind and untrue. Gossip is designed to hurt; its motivation is from hate. Idle gossip may appear entertaining, and malicious gossip may be seen as cruel, but both come from the same motivation. History, entertaining stories, and teaching stories can also be unkind and/or untrue, but in very particular ways and for particular reasons. People who gossip see themselves as having formed a bond with whomever they share stories with. Hence, godsibb. The purpose of gossip, then, is to connect—but also to injure the parties that are spoken about.
In gossiping, we are out to malign or belittle the objects of our gossip, and we are disrespecting and manipulating the listeners of our gossip in order to reel them in. In idle gossip, we reduce human beings to nothing more than sources of amusement. In malicious gossip, the only solution is to destroy or shun the objects of our gossip. We try to create allies within our destructive little dramas.
In history, there are witnesses from all angles. There are facts and therefore a certain kind of truth. The story of an event or a people may be unkind and make us cringe as we do with gossip, but the facts are the facts. For instance, when I lived in Wilton, Connecticut, a Congregational minister said to me, “Hitler did not kill the Jews. He just did not give them health.” Now, for whatever reason, she held that view. For her, history was just a story that could be adjusted for her convenience. Maybe she could not face the horror of what actually happened. Many Germans, however, have worked hard not to make everything nice, but to learn from the facts of the Nazi era. They do not mitigate or hide or whitewash. History—in this case, the unkind facts—is a great lesson.
Avoiding this kind of discomfort means losing opportunities to learn. When we were children, when our parents yelled at our siblings for something we may not have understood, did we listen? Or were we so uncomfortable that we did not watch and learn?
The parables, the teaching stories of all traditions, the stories of the saints—are they gossip? Or are they there for each of us to learn from them?
In the ashram in Ganeshpuri, Baba once had me come to his house. He had a group of people sitting in a circle and had me take a seat next to him. Baba went around the circle, one by one, and yelled at each person for something they had done. I was the witness. He was teaching me that I was to listen and learn not to cringe. This event was not gossip; this was an opportunity for each of us to learn.
Gossip is not meant for learning, and it isn’t even entertaining unless you enjoy hate.
|Gossip||Truth / Fact|
|Entertaining||No fun / harsh / brutally frank|
|Learner||Pridefully ignorant / arrogant|
|Nosy / gossip / intrusive / indiscriminate||Self-contained|
If I am not a learner, then to me every story is gossip. I can’t tell the difference between a parable in the Bible, a Hadith of Mohammed, the story of Moses, and the ridiculous gossip in magazines at the grocery checkout. So I learn from none of them.
We can discern between truth and gossip, but do we want to? If we view all stories as gossip, we can avoid the truth and call our avoidance virtuous. We then conflate gossip with anything that may challenge our shrunken self’s sense of goodness and well-being. We allow the shrunken self to dictate what we will listen to and what we will discard. Anything that makes it uncomfortable is not to be listened to because we call it gossip. If we say in our minds to a person who is telling the truth, “I have nicer thoughts than you, I am a better person than you are”, then we can never learn.
At times in my life I have been the object of people’s gossip. I understand the damage it causes. When I was gossiped about from the pulpit of an Episcopal church, for instance, it was not for the betterment of anyone in the pews. It was about malice. When some people whom I did not even know called me vicious names, it was not educational or helpful. It was gossip. Yes, whatever God does He does for good. That does not mean that gossip does not do injury. My job has been to learn from these experiences, learn when there is truth and when there is just gossip.
Gossip is telling stories that don’t make us better. History, entertaining stories, and teaching stories all have at their core something to uplift us. When we discuss stories from history, spiritual texts, movies and novels, or people we know, we should be doing so to learn—to uplift ourselves and each other. Will some of these stories be painful? Yes, but they are there for each of us to learn. Our task is to face the challenge of learning.
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