I love digging into the meanings of words–but I generally don’t bother much with dictionary definitions of words, unless it is a totally unfamiliar word to me or it is a Swahili word I haven’t used in a while. Dictionary definitions of words are important and significant because they tell us what the general population means when the word is used. But there are two problems with dictionary definitions.
The first problem is that that what words mean to people changes over time. For some reason, people seem to shift the meaning of words in ways that no one can predict. As an example, consider the word “gay”. At one point, it was a synonym for “happy” and was used that way–a Christmas carol says, “Don we now our gay apparel” and the old Flintstones cartoon show promised us “a gay old time” in its theme song. Today, the word has a very different meaning, one that can give a very ironic meaning to these old songs.
The second problem with words is that words also have another meaning, one that can be harder to define but which people tend to understand. The meaning can have an emotional content, a practical content, a contextual content–all of which can go well beyond the dictionary meaning.
All of that is to lead into a discussion of gossip. Dictionaries suggest that gossip is the passing along of information whose validity is in question. But as I have been thinking about the word and the practise–or, to be perfectly honest, my own practise of gossip–I think that definition really only scratches the surface.
When I gossip, the issue generally isn’t whether what I am saying is true or not. In fact, I have an aversion to being wrong so I try hard to have my facts straight, even when I am gossiping. Generally, the issue for me is why I am saying something about someone. And after some soul-searching this week, I realized that the times I can be accused of gossiping are the times I am saying something to make myself look good–I want to be seen as someone in the know, someone with knowledge, someone who has a superior grasp of the situation.
In my desire to look good, I turn another person into a tool. I can climb on them to get myself higher. Ultimately, I am guilty of disrespecting and dehumanizing the other person so that I can gain some selfish advantage. And that selfish advantage doesn’t generally have to be some grand and long-lasting thing. Just getting the best comment at coffee with someone by showing how much I know about another person’s issues is sufficient.
I don’t like that–and am not too happy that I wrote myself into the corner of having to admit not only that I gossip but also making myself look at why I do it. Now, I could make myself look better by saying that I don’t do it very often and I at least try to have my facts straight and–well, there are lots of other ands but nothing really changes the fact that I actually abuse other people for my own temporary and minor gain.
I would like to say that having forced myself to take this look at myself and confess my sin, I am now going to change and never gossip again. I would like to say that but I know it isn’t that easy. In all honesty, I have to say that I will likely gossip again–but I am hoping my confession means that I will feel guilty enough that the gain from gossip is blunted. I am hoping (and praying) that having confessed, I will be more willing to seek another path that leads me away from using other people for my own gain and benefit.
While there are sometimes when people experience overnight change, I have generally found that I have a slower, more incremental process which I hope I have started with this blog entry. When I realized that my gossip is actually an abuse of others, that hurt me and my self-image. Now comes the hard work of changing patterns and doing what I have been telling others to do and which God is obviously telling me to do.
May the peace of God be with you.