Accused of misappropriating church funds, a previously popular and effective minister was hounded from his parish. Some time later, the perpetrator of this rumour, by now burdened by guilt for his unwarranted remarks, called on the victim to beg for his forgiveness.
The minister said nothing at first, just closed his eyes for a moment in thought. Eventually he beckoned to his visitor. “Come with me”, he said and led the way to a top-storey window at his home, pausing only to pick up a pillow on the way. Once there, he ripped the pillow open and shook out the contents. Within seconds, hundreds of feathers were dancing on the breeze before floating into the distance.
“There!” said the minister. “Go and pick up every one of those feathers – if you can. Then you’ll know how hard it is for me to forgive you.”
According to the Bible writer, James, “the tongue is a little member,” yet it’s harder to control than any other part of the human body. In fact, if we could control it, we’d be perfect people; but as none of us can honestly claim never to say the wrong thing at some point in our lives, we need to make allowances for others, even when unkind things are said about us!
Celebrities, of course, are prime targets. Bust-ups between stars are the source of endless speculation. Married couples in the public eye often have to endure gossip spread by total strangers, while social media is an endless (and often unconrolled) source of mis-information and rumour. 'Post-truth' they call it, as if any kind of lie is now acceptable.
But you don’t have to be famous to play a star role in someone else’s fevered imagination. Living as I do in a small farming village, I’ve been the subject of rumours myself. One such involved a supposed affair with my (then) next-door neighbour – who (I suspect) encouraged the belief to make his (ex) girlfriend jealous and bring her begging again to lie obligingly under his feet! Managing to stoke the flames even higher, the young man started parking his pushbike on my drive, much to my annoyance. (Had it been a Ferrari, perhaps I wouldn’t have minded so much!)
Years later, my daughter’s reputation came under fire after she left to go to London. Apparently, a malicious rumour started going the rounds that I’d packed her off somewhere to disguise her non-existent pregnancy! Meanwhile, as well as all the ‘affairs’ I’m meant to have had, I’ve also been dubbed an alcoholic, drug addict and anorexic – all at the same time! But then, that’s nothing to some of the weird and lurid tales I’ve heard about other people in the community.
Not all gossip is bad, though. It often provides useful information such as marriages, births, illnesses, deaths and other matters relating to friends and neighbours. Such conversations prove we’re interested in and care about the people we know.
Even so, we all need to watch that a seemingly innocence, off-the-cuff remark doesn’t cause problems. For example, “I think Jennifer has a crush on Peter,” could create misunderstandings – especially if Jennifer has someone totally different in mind. Or it could result in Jennifer avoiding Peter out of embarrassment, effectively putting the mockers on a pleasant friendship.
Another embarrassing situation; you may have said something about another person, only for them to find out where it came from and confront you with it! Surely, it’s always better to be open and frank, to raise any issues you may have directly to their face! You may even find your beef with that person is utterly groundless.
Twitter, Facebook and other social network site have made rumours run faster and wider than at any time in history, which is why caution should be applied before we send that message. These questions may help you decide whether what you have to say, either verbally or electronically, is really worth repeating:
Is it true? That gossip you’ve heard may be really juicy, but have you checked the facts? If there’s no truth in it, you could, at best, end up with egg on your face or, at worst, be guilty of slander.
Is it fair? Okay, someone you dislike has done something stupid. It’s so tempting to tell everybody you know, so they can share your contempt for that person. But will they? Or will they have contempt for you. Let’s face it, who wants to be friends with a malicious gossip? And talking about someone when they’re not there to defend themselves just isn’t on either.
Is it kind? Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to resist harmful gossip is to imagine it being said about you. How would you feel in that position? Could you really hurt another person’s feelings or harm their reputation? And how would a loose tongue affect your own reputation? Do as you would be done by, is the key.
Suppose, though, that you’re the recipient of malicious gossip. Remember that, by consenting to listen, you’re colluding with the gossiper - which makes you an accessory to their spite. Usually, we can discern when a conversation is turning towards hurtful remarks and it can take tremendous willpower to stop nasty gossip in its tracks – but it’s easy enough to do. A simple “Let’s change the subject, I’m not comfortable with this,” will usually do the trick.
It will also mark you out as a kind, fair-minded individual who can be trusted by your peers.