We met in graduate school and became instant, inseparable friends.
Brilliant, hard-working and accomplished, Kristel was the type of woman people call a "double threat": as brainy as she was beautiful.
After finishing her undergraduate degree at a prestigious liberal arts college in Oregon, Kristel was pursuing her Master's degree at Harvard University in an esoteric area of Christianity. She drew me in instantly with her magical constellation of qualities: a strident atheist, she pursued the study of religion with an almost fervent intensity; fiercely intellectual and analytical, yet silly, light-hearted and fun-loving; free-spirited yet intensely disciplined; strong, powerful and vulnerable all at the same time. I admired her beautiful complexity a little more everyday.
In the winter of our first year as classmates, the green-eyed monster reared its ugly head. The gossip began when Kristel's professor -- an academic rock star at the university -- asked her to be the research assistant for his next book, translating the works of Evagrius of Pontus from ancient Greek into English. Instead of being impressed, people began whispering behind Kristel's back, grumbling lewd explanations about why the professor choose her. My cheeks burned when she told me. Kristel was among the smartest people I had ever met, and she was being undermined intellectually because, well, she happened to be hot. Like Shakespeare warned: "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster."
Coinciding with all this I began to study the notion of "right speech," a moral discipline that is part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. The Path is used to develop insight into the true nature of reality, and to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion. So what exactly is right speech? According to the Pali Canon, It is "abstaining from lying...divisive speech...abusive speech...and idle chatter." When people propagate "wrong speech," the world becomes disharmonious, acrimonious and violent.
Now consider the notion of wrong speech in the internet age. Technology has created an existential minefield, falsely empowering human beings to be even more shameless in their speech by giving them the anonymity of a screen name. The internet is spawning a new era of acrimony. One look at my Facebook feed proves my point.
Like any comparative religion student worth her weight, I combed the library for weeks searching for everything I could find about the pitfalls of gossip and the merits of right speech. It was a theological windfall.
Judaism calls derogatory speech about other people lashon hora, literally, "evil tongue." It is considered a very serious sin and there are volumes of books on the subject. Harm done by speech is even worse than harm engendered by stealing or cheating someone financially: money can be lost and repaid, but the harm done by speech cannot be undone. Islam decries with equal vehemence the evils of gossip (ghibah) and backbiting (gheebah), comparing the latter to a form of cannibalism. Christianity admonishes: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (Matthew 7:1). Shintoism upholds that "The origin of all trouble within this world is a single word spoken in haste."
Here are a few other takeaways about gossip that I have learned from the study of religion and philosophy:
1. Tame Your Tongue. It's a weapon. The lips and teeth, according to the Talmud, are protective walls to prevent its misuse. Evil speech will ultimately come back to injure you. More on this in point #3.
2. The Golden Rule, Rules. Words have the power to hurt, humiliate and shame. Before uttering derogatory comments, put yourself in someone else's shoes. How would you feel if people were hurling insults at you?
3. Be a Vault. When people gossip, an alarm bell goes off in my head to never trust them. When you are entrusted with information, lock it up. Being a vault is the loftiest exemplification of integrity. Talking disparagingly about other people casts you in a negative light.
5. Fight the Herd. Gossip often leads to the type of herd mentality Nietzsche criticized in Beyond Good and Evil. Gossiping helps people form bonds and foster comfort. It makes them feel at ease to be part of a cohort with shared opinions. But this is typically at the expense of others. Please, don't succumb to groupthink.
6. Be a Booster. I remember when I was too small to reach the table in a regular chair. My parents would put me in a booster seat. When someone is gossiping, try elevating the conversation by focusing on the person's virtues. It will deflect the conversation and send a message you're not interested in mudslinging. Being a booster is more soul-feeding than being a detractor.
7. Gossip Can be Deadly. The work Kristel was translating for her professor was by Evagrius of Pontus, who originated the concept of the seven deadly sins. One of his insights was that the deadly thought of anger leads to gossip. Consider yourself forewarned!
8. Focus on Ideas. Like Socrates said, "Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people."
About 10 years after Kristel and I graduated, she emailed to tell me that her professor had moved to Mount Athos, an ancient monastery on a remote Greek peninsula, where monks renounce the world to embark on a spartan life of prayer. She had discovered his renunciation on 60 Minutes. I am not sure when her professor embarked on a life of monasticism, but it somehow felt like a holy vindication, a divine slap in the face to all those who denigrated Kristel a decade before.
It's not a coincidence that people like Kristel are typically gossip's juiciest prey. The more exceptional the individual, the more vulnerable they are to the green-eyed monster. But don't misunderstand: it would be intellectually dishonest to say that I never gossip myself. I succumb to the temptation too. We all do. Because we are human. But I strive to honour the wisdom I have learned from academia and everyday experience about the devastating effects gossip can have. So the next time you talk about your roommate's "eating disorder" or your neighbour's "fertility issues," or whether the congregant in the pew next to you is a good Christian, remember: there's a difference between a little dishing and a mudslide, but in the end, neither will elevate your soul or the world.
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