I admit it: I’m guilty. Recently I was chatting with a co-worker, attempting to get to know her better, and I slipped into “camaraderie through complaining.” This camaraderie is a warped manifestation of something beautiful, something we take seriously at Catholic Beer Club, the desire for community. The events of this past weekend, our embarrassments, our successes – we live in a series of stories, and sharing these stories is sharing ourselves. But what aspect of ourselves were my co-worker and I sharing? Our stories focused on the annoyances and frustrations exercised against us by other people. We were griping about work.
Our conversation wasn’t particularly sordid. We swapped on-the-job “horror” stories and commiserated in a hatred of mornings. However, when I reconsider the conversation, I realize that, in many ways, we were gossiping. Sure, we didn’t name any former co-workers or customers as we complained about them, but our attitude towards them was belittling. At its heart, the reason that gossiping is destructive is the same reason that my conversation was also destructive.
I’m tempted to think that gossip is destructive because it’s “mean.” I subconsciously think, “Nice people don’t say unkind, gossipy things. I’m a nice person. Therefore I don’t say unkind, gossipy things.” But gossip is immoral because it is a lie. Immediately my pride contradicts this. I wouldn’t lie about someone. The unkind things I have said are true. Nevertheless, in Article 8 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, gossip is discussed as an offense against the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Why is gossip always a lie, even if the belittling information actually occurred? Consider an incident in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. In the novel, Mrs. Callendar reflects on her experience with Dr. Aziz who had been “unreliable, inquisitive, vain” among other things, but she sees something more. She thinks, “Yes, it was all true, but how false as a summary of the man; the essential life of him had been slain.” When we belittle others, when we gossip, we summarize another through their faults, and the essential life of them is slain. The truest reality of their person, as beloved by God, is neglected in favor of their shortcomings. How blessed are we that this is not how God sees us!
The brief camaraderie that my co-worker and I had was a community of sorts but not one built on the truth about the people in our lives, and it did not even portray an authentic version of ourselves. I’m not an airbrushed happiness drone, but the most “me” version of myself knows the sum of life is not annoyance. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Gerard Manly Hopkins writes, and I see this. This knowledge is what I want to share.
To change habits of gossip we must convert our hearts. We must ask God to help us see people in the light of the great dignity they possess. This is not an easy task, but it is rewarding. We are now free to marvel at the worth of another person even when they frustrate us. As humans, we are limited and cannot fully understand even ourselves, much less the actions of another, yet we are capable of loving each other. This is a great gift.
The self who I share through my stories should be the most real, the one who wonders at the majesty of the human person and the world “charged with the grandeur of God.” Practically then I must share this grandeur with my co-workers, my friends, and my family. If this were a simple “how-to,” I might not struggle with it as much. But here’s my idea: the entire world is bursting with the presence of God. I can share my authentic experience of the world which is my sight into this grandeur. Furthermore, I can experience the grandeur of God through the people around me. How do they experience the world? What do they love?
Our lives are a series of stories, but in a world bathed in the love of Christ, these stories are episodes in a master narrative. Knowing this we can share ourselves with each other in an authentic way. We can work to build communities focused, not on our self-gratification, but on the truth we have experienced in the world and with other people.