Friday, November 14, 2008

The perils of gossip

I'm feeling rather depressed and fed-up tonight, after one of the more difficult counseling sessions I can recall. I've been trying to help a couple whose marriage is in difficulties . . . but I'm not getting anywhere.

The problem can be summed up in one word: gossip.

Both partners have had 'friends' talking to them about the other spouse, insinuating that the other is at fault in various situations, or archly wondering whether they're seeing someone else, or dismissing their side of the story, or giving their perspective on events which are, in reality, none of their business. Former partners and 'friends' of both principals are telling stories, and embellishing them, and it's making matters much, much worse - particularly because the principals don't know who or what to believe.

This isn't the first time I've encountered this problem, of course. Gossip is one of the most besetting sins you can imagine. A very large proportion of people engage in it, and it does an immense amount of damage. I've seen reputations and relationships destroyed, and even someone murdered, because of gossip.

You think I'm exaggerating about gossip causing death? I'm not. I recall a woman in South Africa who was receiving financial support from some friends, because her husband, and the father of her three children, had been imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities. This was at the height of the unrest in that country in the 1980's. Unfortunately, some of the local 'comrades' (supporters of a particular 'liberation movement' or 'terrorist organization', depending on your point of view) heard neighborhood gossip that she was, quote, 'receiving money from a white man', unquote. The dirty-minded gossiper intended to imply that the lady must be having an affair with the white man concerned: but the 'comrades' didn't draw that conclusion, and didn't bother to ask questions. They simply assumed this must mean that the lady was a police informer, and was being paid for her services.

That night, they gang-raped her (forcing her three young children to watch), hacked her arms off at the elbows with a panga (machete) when she resisted, then put a gasoline-soaked tire around her neck and burnt her to death. As she died, they jeered, and shouted "This is what happens to informers!"

I was the 'white man' who was giving her money - because she (and her husband) were my friends, and they needed help. Can you imagine how I felt when I found out what had caused her death?

I've never forgiven myself for not being more careful about being seen with her. If I had been, she might have been alive today, and her children might have remained untraumatized by something that'll darken their memories for the rest of their lives.

(And yes, I found out who'd gossiped about her, and made sure that person paid the penalty for the consequences of their actions.)

This isn't the only case of gossip or false information causing great harm, even death. See my posts here and here for two recent examples. There are many more.

Gossip is one of the greatest of sins, in my book, and comes close to being unforgivable if it leads to the sort of tragic consequences I've seen. I remember an elderly minister who was one of my teachers before I became a pastor. I asked him once about sin and forgiveness, and whether any sin was so grievous that it might be classified as unforgivable. I've never forgotten his reply. He said, as best I can recall: "The sins everyone drools over, like sexual sins, are common, and petty, and minor, compared to the sin of taking away someone's good name. You can never give it back to them. Even if you stood in the public square and cried out at the top of your voice that you'd lied, and that they hadn't done what you said they'd done, it would be too late. There will always be those who prefer to believe the worst. They'll say that your recantation has been forced out of you, and your original story must have been true. There's no repairing a ruined reputation: and if you're the one that ruined it, and you cause permanent harm to a person or relationship, I don't know that there can be forgiveness for that."

Sobering words . . . and tonight I'm pondering their truth.

Friends, if you know, or believe, or are told, something negative about someone else, why share it? Keep it to yourself! Your information might be wrong, or biased, or incomplete. There are always two sides to a story. Since you can't know the full truth with any certainty, it's usually best to say nothing. After all, how would you feel if you were the victim of such gossip, rather than the perpetrator?

If you don't know the truth at first hand, don't circulate second- or third-hand versions. They're very likely to be wrong - and damaging.

Anyone whose gossip tears someone down, to the extent that their reputation or relationship is permanently harmed, is lower than the gutter, in my opinion.

Tomorrow morning, I'm going to have a couple of 'come to Jesus' meetings with two of the worst gossips in this situation. I don't think they're going to enjoy them.



Old NFO said...

Excellent post Peter, and dead on! Good luck tomorrow, and I'd use the SA situation to "bring the lesson home" so to speak...

tooldieguy said...

Well said Peter! I have seen gossip do terrible things to people as well. (nobody got killed physically, but their spirit was damaged very severely.) If you need backup, let me know! (you have to give me time to get there though)lol


Anonymous said...

I am curious about the human tendency to believe whatever one is told, rather than to realize that if I say, "He's a dick," I'm not telling you anything about the other guy, I'm telling you something about *me*.

phlegmfatale said...

It's amazing how cruel falsehoods spread about people can damage their reputations permanently, as well as ruin their lives, in some case-- you can't prove a negative, after all. You really have to wonder about people who are gleeful at so willfully cutting other people socially.