A secular reflection on the devastating effects of gossip, for all who have ever been a victim.

There can be few people who have failed to notice the repeated comments by the Pope over the past months about the evil of gossip. In fact, warnings about this particular form of abuse seem to have been issued throughout the ages, around the world, and are probably reflected in almost every language and every faith. What this suggests is not that human beings universally recognize that gossip is a sin, and therefore abstain from it – but rather that it is an ancient and ever-present kind of viciousness, endemic in human societies. Of course, the particular slanders may vary from place to place. In South Africa only a few decades ago, the most vile form of gossip was the whisper that someone was an informer – and not a few people were horribly murdered on the strength of it. In other places or at other times, the lies may be that someone has abused a person they love, or taken money they had no right to, or benefited unfairly in some way at the expense of others.

It is understandable that those whose work is the saving of souls should be so disturbed by the phenomenon: when someone regularly indulges in the seemingly small sins of jealousy, malice, prurience, schadenfreude and lying, these steadily build up over time to form an accretion around that person’s soul – quite possibly enough to hide it forever, or destroy it. I know that I should feel compassion, even concern for such people, but I will have to leave that much charity to saints and others who have found the strength to live their lives in a constant striving after grace.

I am more concerned about the reciprocal evil that gossip provokes in reaction to itself: the rage and bitterness, and the feeling of impotence on the part of the victim. Sadly, these are feelings that I know all too well. In my own case, the slander seems to have been to the effect that I am secretly the possessor of some great fortune. It is not true; and the lie delivers a thousand kinds of hurt, some of them unspeakably deep. Yet it is impossible to confront the malicious spreaders of such gossip, because nothing is ever said openly, and the victim is left to surmise the murky rumours from the occasional strange remark or glance, the coldly turned back, or the peculiarly inappropriate request. Not only is it impossible to lash out against this kind of dark and vague miasma, but a fear of seeming too defensive is enough to paralyze the victim in any case. And it is almost impossible to bear the appalling anger that builds in the heart, the heaviness of which can only be guessed at by others who have themselves been the victim of this subtle kind of torture.

I have been struggling with the burden of such an anger for a while now. Just recently, though, I felt a sudden lifting, and for the first time in a long while, the possibility of serenity. It came as such a gift to me that I would like to share it with all those who have ever been in a similar situation. The moment came while I was reading a history of the Celtic people (The Celtic Realms, by Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick.) What arrested me was a description of ‘the king’s Truth’ or fír flatha. One of the stories has it that when Lugaid was king of Tara, he gave a false judgment against someone, and as a result the house he was in began to collapse and slip downhill. He reversed the judgement, and on his utterance of truth, the house stopped falling. Even so, the next year of his reign was marked by blight and famine, so that his own people finally expelled him, and he was replaced by Cormac. This may seem an odd sort of miracle to take comfort in, and you may think it is merely about finding vengeful satisfaction in a belief that those who speak falsely will have their ‘comeuppance’. But I think it is more about finding comfort in the notion that the speaking of truth is an act of great and stabilizing power. Apparently this is a very old belief, found also in Hindu traditions.

If you too have been the victim of gossip, and find yourself in a state of turmoil, struggling with the weight of a bitter anger you never asked for, I hope that these reflections may help you to begin finding peace. It could still take time for the anger to lift finally, but when the moment comes, you may find yourself marveling at the miracle that the path ahead of you no longer seems glassy and blackened, and that when you look up, the houses around you will seem to have stopped falling down.

Perhaps the truth does not need to be uttered by a king, when you yourself already know, and have always known, what it is. You could allow your heart to sing.

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