Practicing Right Speech: The Very Mixed Blessings of Gossip

October 3, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


STORY FOR ALL AGES "The Feathers" Traditional Sufi
As told in Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart, Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman (adapted)

There once lived a man named Azis, who was known to all as a great gossip. Azis could be found day or night in the market or teashops telling the latest, often untrue, stories of who did what in every part of town. He spread rumors, passed judgment, told tales, and sowed seeds of disharmony. Some days when his stories came back to him [as they always do], even he knew he was getting out of hand. So his friends decided to send him to Nasrudin, their local wise man.

Nasrudin wasn' t very helpful at first, having a similar problem himself. But finally he thought of a plan. "Bring me a chicken from the market," he told Azis, "and hurry quickly. And you must make sure it is cleanly plucked, with not a feather remaining on it."

Azis went off to the market and purchased the chicken, after which the seller began the laborious job of plucking. Then Azis became impatient. He grabbed the chicken and immediately returned to Nasrudin, pulling out the remaining feathers as he walked back.

He entered Nasrudin' s doorway and handed him the chicken. Nasrudin put it down and demanded that Azis go back and bring him all the chicken feathers. "Impossible," cried Azis. "By now the feathers are scattered half-way across town!"

"It is like this with your words, too, Azis. As soon as you open your mouth to sow a tale it flies out like the wind carries these feathers. It spreads across town and nothing can retrieve it. You must beware the feathers that fly from your tongue and not fill the air with them."

Azis returned home, chastened by this. Apologetic to his friends and community, he took more care when plucking his words.


THE SERMON "Practicing Right Speech: The Very Mixed Blessings of Gossip"

Do you remember the acid burn you got when you first heard a juicy bit of gossip about yourself? It might have been on the playground, or in a classroom – in my schooldays we were very fond of passing gossip-filled notes between classes, and sometimes during classes – and some grinning enemy or unwitting chum came up to you and said, "I just heard that… blab bla bla, bla bla bla!…"while you stood there with your heart in your socks. Let your memory fill in the rest.

And your face did burn, did it not, and you put on a good front but later limped home full of dread. You had just learned one of the first and most emotionally-charged lessons about justice in the world, which is: when it comes to what people choose to say about you, there is no justice, and to borrow a line from Tennessee Williams, we must all depend upon the kindness of strangers.

So you went home that day that you first heard a bit of gossip about yourself, and you were sick at heart and wondered how many people were talking about you, and how people could be so mean, and if you would ever feel safe and understood ever again. Perhaps you told your mother or father or grandmother about this schoolyard unkindness and in an attempt to make you feel better, what did that caring adult tell you? You know what they said. They taught you this old saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." And if you and I were the same kind of children, you slid off of that warm lap and thought to yourself, "That' s the most ridiculous bit of grown-up nonsense they' ve given me yet!"

Sticks and stones can indeed break our bones. And words can hurt us terribly. They can hurt us individually, they can hurt us as communities, and they can do damage on a global level. I would venture to guess that although many people gathered in this congregation today have suffered physical harm of one kind or another, we have all suffered verbal harm of that particular sort known as gossip.

Where does the word come from? Believe it or not, from an old Anglo Saxon word for godparents: godsibb (as in god- relative. We get our word "sibling" from the same root)! Your godsibb was a kind of spiritual relative. By the middle ages the word godsibb came to mean just "close friend," and somehow by the 16th century it was being used for "one who indulges in idle talk." By the 19th century, the English-speaking world used the word "gossip" in the way we use it today. (Dictionary of Word Origins, p. 260)

What does this fascinating etymology tell us? Well, a couple of things. First of all, according to human history, the ones most likely to talk about you are your god-siblings – or those who are spiritual kin. Makes this a perfect topic for church life, doesn' t it? Second, we look at the root of the word and realize, ah, there may just be an element of the sacred in all of this gossiping business. Kathleen Norris certainly seems to agree when she writes, "Gossip is theology translated into experience… when we gossip we are also praying, not only for [others] but for ourselves." And I love what the Greek poet Hesiod said about gossip in the 8th century B.C.E. :"Gossip is mischievous, light and easy to raise, but grievous to bear and hard to get rid of. No gossip ever dies away entirely, if many people voice it; it too is a kind of divinity."

Yes, it is possible to gossip with a respect for the divine possibilities of gossip -- using gossip as a way of connecting people to one another, to express spiritual kinship. We can gossip as an act of caring, as a way of enjoying each other in absentia, and as a way of keeping our dead with us. But we should also use it carefully, for it can be a very potent weapon in the hands of the inconsiderate.

What is damaging gossip and how do we know when we' re doing it?

We might begin by assessing all of our speech by the standards of the Buddhist practice of Right Speech, which is one of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path revealed by the Buddha.

"The classical explanation of Right Speech is: (1) Speaking truthfully. (2) Not speaking with forked tongue. We don' t say one thing to one person and something else to another. (3) Not speaking cruelly, shouting, slandering, cursing, or creating hatred. (4) Not exaggerating or embellishing. We don' t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse or more extreme than they actually are." (Adapted from The Heart of the Buddha' s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 78)

Borrowing these points from Buddhist wisdom, we can say that it is obviously gossiping to spread untruths or half-truths to others, particularly for the purpose of currying favor or in order to seem like we have important "insider" knowledge. It is certainly gossiping when we speak with forked tongue, engaging in manipulative chit-chat with one person and then running to another to share a different version of the story, all with the (often) unconscious intention of manipulating relationships to our own favor. Slandering is also obviously gossip, as is what Buddha calls "creating hatred."

Those things are fairly easy to grasp, and we can all nod our heads with fair ease and think "Yes, it would be good to give that up forever if I am to be the best person I can be." But I will tell you that I get caught, myself, on that fourth aspect of Right Speech taught by the Buddha. Not creating drama? Not embellishing, exaggerating or creating major crisis out of minor conflict? Surely he doesn' t mean it!? Life would lack spice! What a bore it would all be! But of course, the Buddha is far wiser than I. And he certainly understands human nature. He understands that in order to have peace in the heart, peace in the home and peace in the world, we must wean ourselves of the cheap intoxicant of false drama, saving energy for loving-kindness, compassion and acts and words that build up our shared sense of joy, security, purpose, and meaning. I speak frankly as a recovering crisis addict and drama queen to all of you: it' s can be hard to give up the adrenalin rush that comes with interpreting every bit of even semi-negative news as crisis of major proportions, but if you are willing to do without that particular adrenalin rush life really does become much sweeter.

Let me propose a few more categories of "wrong speech" that I believe also constitute destructive gossip, to add to those set out by the Buddha :

What first comes to mind is the kind of gossip we call "venting." Venting does have its practical uses; for instance, when we need to blow off steam in preparation for the fairer and calmer conversation we intend to have with someone who has upset us. But I have come to believe that simply rehearsing grievances, with no intention to either go to the source of frustration to talk it out OR – and this option is just as valid – with no intention to forgive that person and really let the offense go -- is just gossip. I hope this is clear. I am saying that venting is damaging only if it goes on and on and we feed off the energy we get from it, and there' s never a desire or intention to let the other person off the hook or to try to repair the relationship.

My theatre friends and I used to say, "Honey, if you can' t find anything nice to say about someone… come over here and sit by me." It' s a delicious line, but of course no one really wants to sit next to that kind of person. You and I know that however entertainingly malicious that person might be, they' re pure poison. Perhaps that' s why I am such a junkie for Hollywood gossip. I won' t tolerate hearing it about people I personally know, but celebrities are fair game! I don' t think the Buddha would accept this, but we' re aiming at goodness here, not perfection.

Another form of gossip: I want to suggest that when we pass along bad news with no emotional or spiritual connection to what we are sharing, and we have no intention to do anything about the sadness or tragedy we are reporting, we are treading on the ground of gossip. This is challenging territory, as we are constantly fed news of other people' s disasters and tragedies and almost encouraged to natter about them in the grocery store and post office. I think it helps to ask, "Am I discussing someone else' s terrible misfortune for any good reason? Am I sharing news, or am I just exercising my jaw? Am I talking about this in order to process an emotional reaction, to learn anything, or am I just clucking?" This is a hard one. But to think in these terms has helped me turn off the radio and television at that moment when news crosses the line from journalism into exploitation. I hope it works similarly for you.

To continue: Any time we spend a conversation ascribing motives, actions or feelings to absent others, we are gossiping. This becomes particularly obvious when we find ourselves playing "Junior Psychologist" about another person, analyzing his or her motives from our own far superior and wiser perspective. I don' t know you but this is a favorite sport in my family. It' s just gossip. No one knows the heart of another. No one knows the heart of another. I hope you will agree that to respect this mystery is one of our central religious commitments.

Any time we venture to speak for someone else and report an opinion that is not our own, we are gossiping. This is the kind of gossip I like to call "taking someone' s name in vain," and it is exceedingly popular in tight-knit communities such as families and churches. In family life, this form of gossip gets played out as "You can' t do this and such, ‘cause Mom or Dad said…" In church communities this gets played out surprisingly often as "You shouldn' t do this or such, ‘cause the minister said…!" Folks who gossip in this manner often truly believe they know the mind and wishes of the absent one well enough to speak for him or her. But as I always say, "If you didn' t hear it from the horse' s mouth, it' s just gossip. Better get on the phone with the horse and check the facts." This horse, for one, would like to hear from you.

There is one final kind of gossip that is particularly damning and particularly erosive to communities. I was reminded of it when I listened to the wonderful old scene from "The Music Man," where newcomer Harold Hill is surrounded by the ladies of River City, Iowa, and drawn into their malicious little circle of gossip. You might recall that their dialogue centers around Old

Miser Madison and his dubious relationship to Marion Paroo, or Marian the Librarian. "Old Miser Madison didn' t have a friend in town ‘til she got here," intones one condemnatory matron. "Miser Madison?" asks Harold Hill. "Madison Park, Madison Gymnasium, Madison Public Library … that ‘Miser' Madison?"

And the women continue their picking and cheeping, totally oblivious to Harold Hill' s gentle mockery of their interpretation of this obviously generous and philanthropic individual -- now dead and unable to defend himself, of course. "He left River City the liberry building but he left all the books to her!"

What the pick-a-little ladies are doing reminds me of an old African-American expression, when someone protests, "Don' t call me out of my name!" They are engaging in a special form of gossip which involves recasting someone' s actual behaviors in a mean-hearted manner, basically condemning them for the crime of being themselves. This is the kind of gossip we are indulging in when we interpret others' vulnerabilities and uniqueness in a distorting fashion; when we hold them not in the light of regard and appreciation but to a kind of fun-house mirror of unkind judgment. And believe me… no one looks good in that mirror.

You know what I mean. In this version of gossip, we might say of the extremely nurturing person "she' s so generous, so giving…. but bit of a martyr, isn' t she?" or we' ll call the shy, socially uncomfortable person "stuck-up." The gregarious, charismatic person is dismissed as a "show boat," and the politically passionate person might be called a "zealot" or "fanatic."

This is the worst. It should break every heart here that hears it happening. More than anything – and I am speaking particularly to our youth when I say this -- I want you all to be the people in the room who say, "No, you' ve got it all wrong! So-And-So is a unique character. He' s not very suave, sure, but he' s a human being with his own struggles just like you have yours, so let' s quit dishing him, shall we?" Or you' ll say, "I know Whatsername kind of sucks all the air out of the room when she comes in, but that' s how God made her. She needs to be able to contribute to this group and be accepted as she is, so unless she' s causing some kind of real conflict that you want to deal with directly, let' s just live and let live."

Church people who take the bonds of covenant seriously know these things… and take them seriously. They are careful when speaking of others because they know that the power to name another is the power to create or destroy, and it is in how we speak of one another that we are named and remade again and again. So let us practice Right Speech not only because, as the Spanish proverb says, "The one who will gossip with you is the one who will gossip about you," but for the good of our souls, and because we know that once we have let the feathers fly, there is no gathering them back in again.

Let your speaking of one another and with one another be always benediction, "a speaking well of," and blessing. Because it is with words, as surely as with sticks and stones, that we either build up or break down ourselves and our communities. Amen.
"Pick-a-little-talk-a-little, cheep!"