“Well let me tell you about that one. I heard that…” How many conversations have you had that started in this way? I’d say that I’ve had too many to count, both before and after joining the friars. These are conversations about someone that, we’ll say, do not present the most favorable information. Sometimes it’s maliciously done, spoken as a way to hurt the other person or to turn one person against another. Most times it’s not. I’d say that many people slip into gossip without even realizing it: information is heard, and without checking its validity or usefulness, it is passed on to the next person with less accuracy and more embellishment.
For anyone who has ever been the subject (which is all of us) or the perpetrator (also all of us) of these conversations, you know that it is difficult to overcome harsh gossip, even if it is clearly untrue. The best example I’ve heard comes from the movie Doubt. The subject of implied accusations of child abuse, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman stands in the pulpit and gives a less-than-subtle message to his accuser: gossip is like a pillow that has been torn open in the wind. Once the feathers have been let out, no matter how bad we feel about it or how hard we try, we can never know where each feather ended up or how to collect them all. What is said can never be unsaid, making gossip a horrid sin against our brothers and sisters.
This, I would say, requires that we think more carefully about what we say and who we say it to. It requires us to ask three questions before sharing about someone else:
Is it true?
The first is the biggest and most obvious. When we hear someone say, “Did you hear about…?” and we have had no firsthand knowledge of the matter, we have nothing to assess its validity other than the speaker’s word. That’s not to say that it may not be true or that the person speaking is lying. It is merely to wonder how this information got to him/her in the first place and whether or not it could have been embellished along the way. For me, if I can’t stand by the truthfulness of a statement, I probably shouldn’t be sharing it with others.
Is it helpful?
Let’s say, though, that something is in fact true and we can prove it. Maybe you heard or witnessed it directly from the individual in question. This posses another question: does this warrant free dissemination to anyone who will listen? “But it’s true! I’m not making it up!” That may be the case, but just because something is true doesn’t mean it is helpful to building relationships. Are we sharing things to break someone down, to get a good laugh at their expense, or to promote ourselves? Or are we sharing information that will help others better relate to this person, more easily understand a situation, or be more compassionate? Sharing that a friend doesn’t read so that others will be more patient is different than doing so to make fun of them. The former builds up relationships while the latter breaks them down.
Is it necessary?
The last question may be the most important. Just because something is true and you have the best intentions in sharing it does not mean that it is altogether appropriate. Bob may be cheating on his taxes, but I doubt that the other parents on the soccer team need to know this. Jane may have an eating disorder, but I doubt that this is appropriate dinner conversation with the neighbors. Maybe this is information Bob’s spouse should know, and maybe someone should seek the proper professional help for Jane, but the general friend or colleague has no need for this information. Even if it is not the intent in sharing, such information will inevitably change one person’s perception of another without any real benefit. People often feel a need to tell us friars (or friars feel a need to tell other friars) every ounce of backstory about a person so that, as pastors, we can best relate to them. More times than not I just have to ask, “Why did you tell me that?” If it’s not necessary, all that excess information can do is complicate a relationship.
I guess, ultimately what I want to say is that, we only get one first impression of people. We only get one chance to form our own opinions of people, develop a relationship, and share ourselves when we’re ready. To be told information about someone from a third party robs us of that opportunity. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard stories about someone before I even had a chance to meet them. If and when I do finally meet someone, I will do my best to be open to them, but my perception has unavoidably been tainted. This is a great tragedy. I hope that we as Christians, starting with myself, will be more charitable with our words and be able to ask ourselves with constraint: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary?