There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly becomes any of us .
To talk about the rest of us.
~Edward Wallis Hoch
As a young wife living in Miami, I was talking one day to a friend from our church congregation.
I made a disparaging remark about a mutual acquaintance. This friend of mine did not say a word, but simply looked at me in mild surprise. I realized for the first time in my life that there were people in this world who did not gossip, and that I wanted to be one of them.
Back then my husband and I lived in a condo with glass, slatted windows. On breezy nights we kept the windows open. It was much like living in a glass house, and it was a good place to make a pledge that we wouldn't gossip. After all, we never knew who would be walking by. It took a while for our family to change our ways. We were used to dumping our church bags in the living room while we spilled out the latest gossip and analysis of various church members. But eventually it became a habit that stuck.
I don’t know why humans feel prone to gossip. I do know from experience that at the outset it feels good, like a fat dessert. That’s why we call it a delicious piece of gossip. It rolls off the tongue and we can hardly wait for others to take a bite. But I also know this: I’ve never passed on a piece of gossip without feeling slightly sick afterward, like I’ve eaten too much pie. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and a tear in the fabric of our souls. It harms not only the person we’re talking about. It harms us as well.
It’s not easy to eschew gossip. For instance, I’m in the presidency of my Mormon congregation’s women’s organization. We meet regularly to assess the needs of the women in our Relief Society. We talk about women who are struggling financially or who may need more love or attention. We plan meals for new mothers and those who have fallen ill. There is the constant flux of people moving in and people moving out. In short, we talk about people a lot.
Yet I have never heard the president of our Relief Society speak a disparaging word toward any of the women in our congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She doesn’t pass judgment. She shares only as much as we need to know to get the job done. She doesn’t glory in knowing a person’s struggles and broadcasting them like seed in a cornfield. She has taught me a great deal about what it means to be an honest and effective leader.
In an era of tabloids, celebrity gossip channels and politicians who dig through each other’s backgrounds for salacious material to share with the world, it is hard not to join the throng. It’s equally hard to teach our children not to speak ill of others. The daily report from school is filled with the behavior and actions of others, the words they used, the jokes they told and the way they acted in school. I am trying to teach my children the delicate line between reporting and gossiping, just the way my Relief Society president has taught me.
As children, we used to recite the old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” The truth is, a name, a secret broadcast wide, the knowledge that others are talking about us behind our backs, those things can sting far longer than any stone against our skin. It’s enough to drive a person away from church or have them shut a door in our faces.
We would do well to follow the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”
Even if the world doesn’t follow suit, we can keep our tongues clean, and teach our children to do the same.
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