Starting off, I think it’s fair to say that each and every person–regardless of race, social standing or spiritual practice–is deserving of the following:
- Reasonable understanding
- In lack of reasonable understanding, the benefit of the doubt
For contextual purposes, gossip here refers to unconstrained casual conversation about another person, most often involving details which have NOT been confirmed as true. For the purposes of this posting, I will expand upon the definition to include casual talk about another person which is unreasonably judgmental or otherwise negative in its subject matter; for example: telling one of your friends that a mutual friend has an annoying laugh, or that he/she is arrogant or stupid, among any number of other slanderous claims which are most often the result of a lack of fundamental understanding.
In sum, gossip is shit talk, both in its composition and quality.
When you meet someone, within the span of a single moment an assumed identity is ascribed to their presence (personality, intelligence, temperament, etc.), comprising what is popularly referred to as a “first impression.” Maybe this person talks a lot or very little and so we assume they are either extroverted or introverted. Maybe they look you in the eye and appear confident as opposed to being shy or reserved. Maybe he’s dressed business casual, so you assume he’s got a good head on his shoulders, while a man clothed in a plastic sack might be assumed lazy, unfortunate or unaccomplished. However, upon further inspection, you may find the assumed extrovert has serious social anxiety which compels him to speak excessively, while the “introvert” is only quiet because his father passed away the previous day. Perhaps the guy dressed in business casual has a problem with credit cards, while the man in the sack has taken on a vow of poverty to challenge modern consumerism. Maybe the woman who looks you in the eye is blind, while the gal who doesn’t was once in an abusive relationship which unraveled her sense of confidence.
In this way, first impressions are not a reliable framework upon which to build one’s judgement of an individual. But how about in the case of an acquaintance? A friend? An enemy? A lover?
Imagine if you were to sit down and write a list of details about yourself–an introspective resume, if you will. This list would include everything from your most fleeting thoughts to your most profound emotions, moments of happiness or trauma which have dismantled or shaped your personality, motives and ideology. It would include your interests and disinterests, your hopes and your fears, your pride and regret, haphazardly transcribed within the novel-script of your past. Essentially, this list would encapsulate all of the things the world does or does not know about you. Now consider, how much does the world know? And more importantly, how much does (or could) the world understand. Apply this notion to a person belonging to any of the above relationship categories, then ask yourself: how much do I understand about (insert name)?
Before answering, consider how many years you have been alive. Imagine all of the time you have spent alone or with others, thinking your thoughts, feeling your emotions, with singular access to your own mind, the contents of which have only ever been experienced by those who know you–to whatever extent–secondhand. Now, take a second to recognize the inefficacy of this secondhand experience. Chances are, at some point you have encountered a problem communicating an idea you had or an emotion you felt with someone else. Communication is a matter of effectively perceiving messages, expressed verbally or physically, back and forth between two or more individuals. That is to say, different individuals with unique perspectives. Likely more often than is realized, this difference in perceptions can lead to misunderstanding. Sometimes this misunderstanding is addressed, while other times it isn’t identified to begin with. And often the misunderstanding is irremediable; from these differing and opposing belief systems, ideologies, personalities and experiential frames of reference precipitates a largely unrecognized complexity in connecting the processes of expression and perception between individuals. After all, you can’t put yourself behind the eyes of another person to think their thoughts any more than you can dream their dreams or experience their physical sensations. If you pinch your friend’s arm and he pinches yours, you will both experience a similar sensation, but you won’t experience each other’s sensation. In this case, your friend’s own nerve endings would communicate a signal of mild pain to his/her own brain, just as your nerves would with yours–separately. The same goes for all subjective experience. Even if a friend were to recount a memory to you, and explain the details of an event which, in one regard or another, drastically altered the way they then viewed life and the world, the character of your perception is unlikely to undergo the same change if change at all. This is because, despite hearing a detailed account of the experience, you did not have the experience yourself, and because this change in perception isn’t voluntary–it just happens, and it’s happening all the time.
Think how much you have changed over the course of your life. Physical appearance aside, if you were to meet you ten years ago, you might hardly recognize yourself. You were a different person then, and it’s likely you have no concrete recollection of just when or why this divergence of identity took place. The earlier version didn’t flip a switch and suddenly upgrade to version 2.0, but rather it matured gradually, taking in experiences and converting them to memories upon which to reflect and subtly shift, much the way the moon shifts between phases.
If you ask yourself “Who am I?” could you give an answer? Now, ask yourself “Why am I who I am?” Given that you could answer the first question, I would expect the second to be more challenging. Let alone the time you would need to spend poring through your innumerable past experiences, your victories and traumas alike, you’d then need to weave traceable connections between each experience and its subsequent effect on your mental composition, as well as thoroughly examine the ways in which you changed or did not change (consciously or unconsciously) due to that effect, so on and so forth.
If you can’t justify to yourself why you are the way you are, then how can you, in turn, possibly understand why someone else is the way they are? And by this logic, how could any one person judge any other person? I think we can all agree that life has its twists and turns, its ups and downs. Because of the inherent entropy of human development, people are, throughout every stage of life, distinctly imperfect. We make mistakes. We say things we don’t mean and act impulsively. We don’t apologize when we should, or at all. We gossip. Unthinkingly at times. Deliberately at other times–when we’re bored or pressured by the group gossiping of social gatherings, as though through unjustly scrutinizing one person we are made more relatable to others. But this fashion of deepening relationships is hollow. Where it may seem to fulfill one side it empties the other, a genuine social succubus. Put yourself on the receiving end of gossip and the negative impact becomes clear. To realize people you don’t know spend time in slandering your personal attributes (physical traits, personality, aspirations), or life happenings can be damaging to confidence and well-being, manifest new anxieties or flare up existing ones, and broadens the gap between one person and the world. In the case of people you do know, the result can be crippling. To learn that your brother, sister, best friend or spouse express their dislike of something you do or something you are when your back is turned is bound to profoundly diminish the trust and confidence you once felt in their presence. For this reason, empathy is a necessary contraceptive for the seeds of gossip, which otherwise spread as a kind of pandemic.
You see, true understanding isn’t afforded by cashing in what you know about a person. It’s an investment made in good faith at first sight, from which dividends of pure acceptance and unity enrich the quality of your life and the lives of those touched by your genuine and unchanging compassion. To gossip about anyone, regardless of who they are in relation to you, undermines the affluence of understanding with a kind of greed: expecting to enhance your sociability or increase the entertainment value of your free time without first doing the hard work of opening your mind to accept what you cannot possibly know. When you hear discussion of a person’s annoying or unattractive traits, understand that no one can change his/her appearance or personality. When word spreads of a person’s alleged misdeeds, understand there are two sides to every story, and we all have a story. When you are presented with gossip from another or find yourself at the levers, understand that we are all who we are for more reasons than can be counted.
While I’m not a religious man, I find great philosophical value in the following passage from the Bible:
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31
We’ve all felt the sting of gossip, just as we have all issued the sting. But in a world of increasing negativity and hate, to harness unconditional understanding opens a doorway to another dimension wherein peace connects one heart to the next without end, without exclusion, and every man, woman and child can confidently expect to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Do the hard work, dear readers. Be honest with the ones you know and love and allow pure understanding to open your heart to love those you don’t yet know.
Thanks for reading,
-Damen P. Adams
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