A few years ago I decided out of the blue while on vacation in Kauai that our whole family would attend an Ash Wednesday mass to mark the beginning of Lent. I knew it could go either way. These services rely on a priest who understands how to gently hold everything together which isn’t always the reality.
This priest had a profound effect on me. After the ritual, the homily began. While he had several good things to say, the one that struck a chord was this:-
Honor the absent.
Note, he did not say ‘don’t gossip’.
Everyone says: Don’t gossip. I have only met a couple people who absolutely don’t gossip and they were intensely private, closed people. People who shared nothing with anyone. Most of us have met these types of people before.
I have also known those who have gossiped constantly – they are the people I would not trust.
In fact, the reason I am writing this is because I learned of gossip about me recently. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t even seem to reflect my worst self. Yet it still hurt,
Even with the sting of being hurt by gossip, I know it isn’t all bad. One study suggests that we use gossip to bond with people, to identify a connection, a shared knowledge or experience.
For example, if I complain about some minor thing my husband does that annoys me but wouldn’t want him overhearing, that’s a sign that I trust you. And I would have to trust you to share it.
But where is the line? Where does it become awful and ugly instead of venting frustrations and bonding in the process?
Why did that phrase stay with me long after the memory of the service had faded?
Honor the absent.
The best way I can explain it is this.
If I honor the absent, I honor that they are human, that they most likely are doing the best they can. That they want to be the best they can but fall short, like I do – like all of us do regardless of our intentions.
I hold onto these thoughts while I speak my words, making them gentler and less cruel. Even my voice becomes softer and less harsh in tone. My choice of phrase is more ‘temporary’ … suggesting perhaps that I’m simply having a bad day. But even in that we need to take care.
Around that time an adult who is important to my daughter blew it, right in front of her. My daughter cried. She felt so bad about what this adult said that she somehow felt that she was at fault for the outburst and blamed herself.
I explained to my daughter that it was not remotely her fault. My daughter seemed to believe this. A couple of weeks later I asked how she felt about the situation – and about the trusted adult. My daughter looked and me and said “It was bad. I know now it was not my fault. I forgive her though. We all have bad days and she was having one then”.
I was blown away by her own ‘adult’ response. She acknowledged the behavior and processed it in a way that made room for grace and forgiveness. She spoke about this person honestly and honorably.
Honor the absent
Can we push to do this? Can we stop trying to repress what is often a natural urge to gossip and instead try to honor those who are not here- like living, breathing, caring human beings doing the best they can?
Can we work instead on speaking in a humane, balanced and fair way about people?
Perhaps the best way to do this is to see ourselves as less than perfect and a mixed bag of good and bad. When we do this we put ourselves shoulder to shoulder with the rest of humanity and remove ourselves from the pedestal of judgement. We expect that others will also notice our faults and realize that if they notice it and speak humanely about it, it’s a good check on our behavior.
If we only see ourselves as having great intentions, and project negative assumptions onto others we will quickly come to see them as ‘bad’ and easily attack them. We hear it in the broad statements others make – or we may make ourselves… ‘all liberals think that way’, or ‘that’s typical of a conservative’, or ‘she’s a narcissist’, ‘he’s borderline’, ‘she’s just self-absorbed’.
Be careful when you hear yourself say these things. You are dehumanizing people and turning them into the enemy. Instead try pointing out the behavior in a non-judgmental way. ‘That wasn’t a kind gesture. I wonder if he’s OK?’ or ‘She’s seems preoccupied, I would like to find out more about what is going on’.
Honor the absent
Let’s face it, we won’t ever stop talking about others but honoring them while they are away is a good middle ground.
Let’s be honest with ourselves too and admit that the good and bad in life exist in all of us.
That includes you and me.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Nicole C Weiss LCSW
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