It was awkward at first. Prolonged pauses, stammering, and silence were the products of the first days of our “ideas challenge.” In an effort to tackle gossip, my husband and I were inspired, by Catholicism of course, and this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
For a lifetime I had been tackling this monolith with nothing more than an increasing number of visits to the confessional, but this week we took “people” off the table. Coming home from work there would be no complaining about this or that co-worker, no comparing our lives to those of our 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 before navigating to topics of real interest. But even when it was just Planet Earth, it felt really good. It felt light.
So why do we like talking about people so much? Why is it endlessly fascinating? And what constitutes “gossip?” Is this a harmless observation or is it a thinly veiled resentment cropping up? Is this necessary to share with my spouse or am I using them as a balm for my interpersonal frustrations? The what and why of gossip, like so many elusive moral teachings, comes down to intention. And until we pull up the roots of this temptation, it’s unlikely to end.
This is why I think we talk about people:
From the youngest age we learn that the quickest way to bond with a peer is verbal mutiny: buzzing about the teacher’s garish wardrobe, defaming the popular girl. As we age this becomes a way to connect to someone we otherwise can’t connect to, a way toward intimacy: “I wouldn’t tell this to anyone else.” We want to be liked, and we want people to like us, and so we exchange this social currency.
This just in
The bearer of “mind-bending” news gets a rush of self-importance. This only continues to be reinforced by people eager for this news. And thus the promise you made “not to tell a single soul,” becomes the promise you force on those you pass the news to: “but please, you can’t tell anybody.” And all who hear the secret get momentary intrigue in an otherwise mundane day.
Even legitimate gripes become harmful when we are processing with the wrong people. We may be seeking validation for pain that was never acknowledged by the person who hurt us. This often sends us down a path of never-ending fulfillment. We may get consolation from a sympathetic listener that comforts us for a few hours. But we will be seeking a re-up on that comfort from the next sympathetic listener we find. And it never does heal the wound. Because what we know we’re looking for is validation from the person who hurt us in the first place, and until we confront them we’ll never get it.
Through surreptitious compassion we may discuss the particulars of someone’s life in the vain of Christian charity. “I really worry that she is losing too much weight,” or “it seems like he’s not thinking at all about his future.” I think we let other people’s lives implicate some weakness in our own. And so we talk about them. Calling someone a “workaholic” masks an inferiority complex about my own inability to work hard. Scoffing at a “pinterest-perfect house” soothes my shame at the dust bunnies gathered in my home. Somehow them, just being who they are, threatens our identity. And so we talk about it.
The “Catholic club”
This one inevitably happens when you get a group of like-minded Catholics together. At one point or another the conversation can take on an “us and them” tone. It often begins well-intentioned, inspired by a feeling of ideological marginalization, discussing the flaws of protestants, progressives, republicans, southerners, elites, feminists, etc, but often the conversation devolves into something more damaging. In these conversations we forget the living, thinking, breathing individuals who are equally Christ’s daughters and sons. And it never prepares me to face a stranger with the love of 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.