When I was a newly minted First Reconciliation kid, I remember confessing gossip on the regular. I just loved to share a little too much about others. I was a “social butterfly” as my teachers liked to call me, and it seemed I just couldn’t help myself.
Moving into adolescence, it was still one of my most regularly confessed failings – there was always something that was too interesting to me and my tongue always got the best of me. If I think honestly about it, I probably felt important or valued when friends listened to what I had share (whether it was just and right to share it or not) which fanned the flame.
During a big moment of turning back to God in my young adult life, I was given the grace of seeing how harmful that behavior was. I found myself seeing the ugliness of my interior judgments of other people, the way I shared information to put them in a bad light, and my own insecurities that fueled a spirit of gossip in me. It was hard to admit, but I was not living truthfully or in charity.
It was freeing to start working on gaining control of my tongue and keeping my words in the realm of true Christian charity – when an opportunity arose to over share something negative about a friend, I began to find joy in keeping silence for the sake of their good name. It was really transformative to just love people as I would want them to love me. It sounds so simple, but in practice it took an incredible amount of self-reflection and discipline.
Somewhere along the way, I began to stray away from that freedom. Suddenly I was finding myself listening to friends “vent” about their families or friends and feeling torn – was I listening to gossip or was I just being a good friend by listening? I could always seem to justify what I was hearing by explaining away what my conscience was trying to point out to me. When my conscience would prod my heart, I would say to myself things like “They had a hard day – just let them vent a little! … But this is so interesting – I want to hear what crazy stuff this person did! … How would I feel if I was having a hard time? I should just let them share a little more.”
But in the end, guilt was gnawing at me each time. I knew it wasn’t fair to the people they were talking about, it wasn’t fair to my friends to be a partaker in gossip, and it wasn’t fair to me after having found freedom from this particular fault. Sadly, I didn’t do much to fix the problem. Slowly it began to erode my standards, and instead of just listening, I began to also take part in this type of “venting”. It seemed that every person that bothered me was a valid situation to complain and share with other people. I was on my way back to having no control of my tongue.
THE ENEMY IN DISGUISE
As I had my first son and began to join online mom communities and groups, the whole problem grew exponentially. Soon, I was hearing intimate details of complete strangers told by the people who were hurt or bothered by them. And my ability to justify these things grew even stronger. I found myself taking sides with whomever was complaining, and taking part of this online bashing. The most startling part for me was many times it was under the guise of prayer. I read things like “Please pray for me! My sister is a complete lunatic. Listen to what she did…” I also found myself justifying my own gossip and over-sharing under the guise of asking for advice.
Finally, one day, I went to confession about all of this. I felt like I could justify it all, but something deep down told me this wasn’t the kind of Facebook use that would make me a saint. The priest responded to my confession with a serious tone and advised to stop this kind of curiosity and gossip at all costs. He gave me a warning about using social media and how much it can insidiously compromise holiness if we aren’t on guard. That’s when it hit me – the evil one had seduced me slowly and surely without almost no fight from me. This “innocent” mom-gossip on Facebook was just as bad as my previous gossip problem I had fought so hard to remove from my life several years ago.
At that point, I had to make a decision to change once again. I knew my own heart and where my limits were, and I knew I had to put an end to the conversations online (and in person) that were gossip, whether I was initiating them or reading them for my own entertainment and curiosity. I left many groups for a while so I could focus on growing in virtue and retraining my brain to avoid gossip. I was shocked how entrenched in it I really was. As a dear college friend of mine used to always say, it was a case of Satan in a prom dress. It all looked so good on the outside (mom friendships, online community, support) that I didn’t even care what was underneath (a trap to get me back into past sins).
STAYING ON GUARD
Gossip in the age of Facebook is sneaky. I think it’s so easy to let our guard down because Facebook is a fun and social safe spot for a lot of people. We feel like connecting with friends is a good thing, so when gossip starts sneaking in it’s hard to distinguish between what’s genuine sharing and helping and what is harming other people.
Hear me out, I’m not saying online groups are evil. Not even close! I have so many amazing friends I stay connected with thanks to Facebook groups. I learn from some of the wisest moms out there online. And I’ve prayed through impossibly hard situations with friends over the internet and they’ve prayed me through some of my darkest hours. What I am saying, is that I think it’s time we rise up to a new Christian age where we are determined to be a disciple at all times – even online. To remember that every word spoken will be brought to light one day, whether those words were in person or in a secret online group.
If we’re really convinced this is a problem, we need a plan to remain in charity and avoid gossip. We need a game plan to check ourselves before reading and posting. What helped for me was to read what the Church teaches on this matter and hold that up against my own online activity and involvement and see how I measured up. Here’s what the Catechism teaches regarding the Eight Commandment and how our words can injure another (found in paragraph 2477):
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgement who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgements concern them.
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way…
This is a bombshell. When I measured up my online activity to these paragraphs, I was floored at how bad I was acting. I had to admit to both sins of commission (I was actually the one sharing things I shouldn’t or making unjust judgements) and omission (I was not doing anything to stop it and was reading things I shouldn’t know about out of curiosity).
Now, I try to keep in mind the following questions when sharing or getting involved. These questions are a good litmus test for me when deciding if I’m falling back into the sin of gossip again:
- Do I know the person being spoken about?
- Have I given the benefit of the doubt in this situation?
- Would I feel comfortable saying this directly to the person I’m talking about?
- Would I want this shared about me?
- On my deathbed, will I regret what I am about to say or take part in?
- Could the person sharing be biased and painting an untrue picture of the person they are talking about?
- Am I sharing details that aren’t appropriate for other people to know?
- Would I be proud of my son or daughter if they were a part of this conversation?
- Am I fairly venting and keeping the focus on my struggle or am I seeking to place blame on another?
- Will what I’m about to say, type, read, or share bring me closer to heaven?
We have a unique battle-field in our time and in some ways it seems harder than the in-real-life stuff. The enemy is alive and well and it isn’t the people who bother us or who we feel the need to gossip about. Along with biting our tongues, we need to be slapping our hands and seriously examining what we are doing on social media as children of God.
Gossip in the age of Facebook is definitely a new problem, but if we can all deliberately choose charity and goodness, the impact we could have on the world would be undeniable. Choosing truth and avoiding gossip on Facebook and online might be uncomfortable, but then again, isn’t the narrow road always a little less cozy?