It was awkward at first. Prolonged pauses,rnstammering, and silence were the products of the first days of our “ideasrnchallenge.” In an effort to tackle gossip, my husband and I were inspired, by Catholicismrnof course, and this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas;rnaverage minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
For a lifetime I had been tackling this monolithrnwith nothing more than an increasing number of visits to the confessional, butrnthis week we took “people” off the table. Coming home from work there would bernno complaining about this or that co-worker, no comparing our lives to those ofrnour friends, and no mindless chatter when lacking a better topic.
What was alarming was how few “ideas” I really had. Speaking about people demanded the least amount of thought and energy and most satisfyingly appeased a day’s angst. But it was a temporary release for discomfort, and a failure to engage my husband in a life-giving way. I stumbled over topics I suddenly realized were no longer available to me. We talked a lot about Planet Earth beforernnavigating to topics of real interest. But even when it was just Planet Earth,rnit felt really good. It felt light.
Sornwhy do we like talking about people so much? Why is it endlessly fascinating?rnAnd what constitutes “gossip?” Is this a harmless observation or is it a thinlyrnveiled resentment cropping up? Is this necessary to share with my spouse or amrnI using them as a balm for my interpersonal frustrations? The what and why ofrngossip, like so many elusive moral teachings, comes down to intention. Andrnuntil we pull up the roots of this temptation, it’s unlikely to end.
Thisrnis why I think we talk about people:
From the youngest age we learn that the quickestrnway to bond with a peer is verbal mutiny: buzzing about the teacher’s garishrnwardrobe, defaming the popular girl. As we age this becomes a way to connect tornsomeone we otherwise can’t connect to, a way toward intimacy: “I wouldn’t tellrnthis to anyone else.” We want to be liked, and we want people to like us, andrnso we exchange this social currency.
The bearer of “mind-bending” news gets a rush ofrnself-importance. This only continues to be reinforced by people eager for thisrnnews. And thus the promise you made “not to tell a single soul,” becomes thernpromise you force on those you pass the news to: “but please, you can’t tellrnanybody.” And all who hear the secret get momentary intrigue in an otherwisernmundane day.
Even legitimate gripes become harmful when we arernprocessing with the wrong people. We may be seeking validation for pain thatrnwas never acknowledged by the person who hurt us. This often sends us down arnpath of never-ending fulfillment. We may get consolation from a sympatheticrnlistener that comforts us for a few hours. But we will be seeking a re-up onrnthat comfort from the next sympathetic listener we find. And it never does healrnthe wound. Because what we know we’re looking for is validation from the personrnwho hurt us in the first place, and until we confront them we’ll never get it.
Through surreptitious compassion we may discussrnthe particulars of someone’s life in the vain of Christian charity. “I reallyrnworry that she is losing too much weight,” or “it seems like he’s not thinkingrnat all about his future.” I think we let other people’s lives implicate somernweakness in our own. And so we talk about them. Calling someone a “workaholic”rnmasks an inferiority complex about my own inability to work hard. Scoffing at arn“pinterest-perfect house” soothes my shame at the dust bunnies gathered in myrnhome. Somehow them, just being who they are, threatens our identity. And so werntalk about it.
This one inevitably happens when you get a grouprnof like-minded Catholics together. At one point or another the conversation canrntake on an “us and them” tone. It often begins well-intentioned, inspired by arnfeeling of ideological marginalization, discussing the flaws of protestants,rnprogressives, republicans, southerners, elites, feminists, etc, but often thernconversation devolves into something more damaging. In these conversations wernforget the living, thinking, breathing individuals who are equally Christ’srndaughters and sons. And it never prepares me to face a stranger with the lovernof Christ.
Like many sins in the Church, sometimes the antidote isn’t suppressing, but letting a virtue pour out in its place. Let’s demand more from our interactions. In place of gossip let’s forge unity through creativity, literature, invention, creation, personal growth. In place of prattle let’s choose silence. Let wounds lead us to healing reconciliation. Let real fraternal charity be brought “to your brother” and not to someone else. And when Catholics come together let us discuss “them” like we are speaking of Christ’s body, because that is what “they” are. And most of all, let’s talk about Planet Earth.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
Interested in more? Subscribe to Angelus News to get daily articles sent to your inbox.