In Al-Anon, I heard an acronym that spelled the word “think.” Each letter represented some aspect of courtesy that must be fulfilled before speaking. T was, “Is it thoughtful?” H represented “honest,” while I was “intelligent.” N meant “necessary,” and K was “kind.” It’s a perfect way to pause before we speak, because we can evaluate whether or not what we are about to say will be helpful or harmful.
Fr. Chad Ripperger gave an excellent talk about gossiping and its effects, including individual vices that comprise gossiping and how we can determine what can/should be said and what we should refrain from saying.
Based on Thomistic philosophy, Fr. Ripperger explains that, in order for us to speak about another person, there are three requirements:
- It has to be just.
- It has to be charitable.
- It has to be necessary.
How can we know whether or not we have the right to judge someone, either in thought or speech? Again, St. Thomas Aquinas answers the question with three points:
- I must have authority over the other person. (In other words, if you are a parent, you have authority over your children. If you are a husband, you have authority over your wife. If you are a priest, you have authority over the laity, etc.)
- It must be done according to justice.
- I must have knowledge of the person’s interior life. (Do we really know someone else’s interior disposition? Rarely, if ever, unless you are a spiritual director/confessor and truly have the gift of knowledge to read that person’s soul.)
Because these conditions are so seldom met, it’s prudent for us to remain silent more than we speak — or at least stop and T.H.I.N.K. before contributing to a conversation about another person. The downfall of gossiping is that it leads to judgment of another person and violates the virtue of temperance.
Curiosity, Detraction, Murmuring, Calumny, Contumely
Gossiping begins with unhealthy curiosity. This means I want to know something that is not my business, so I may start asking nosey questions for the sake of “interest” in the person’s life. There’s a particular pleasure, says Fr. Ripperger, derived from knowing something secretive or private about another person, which could be damaging to the soul.
Detraction is when we destroy another person’s reputation by saying something true about them behind their backs. Murmuring is saying what’s true with the intention to separate one person from another. This usually happens when we don’t like someone, and it destroys friendships.
Calumny occurs when we say something false about someone in order to drag that person down. This could happen if you’ve been hurt by someone or felt betrayed and want to “get even.” Similarly, contumely is saying something hurtful or damaging someone’s reputation to their face. Again, it can result from misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or extreme betrayal.
Our own wounds should not motivate us to hurt other people with our words or behaviors.
When in doubt, choose silence
St. Benedict once wrote, “One who never stops talking cannot avoid falling into sin.” Every sin begins in our thoughts. This is the primary target of the devil in ordinary temptation, because if he can convince us in subtle ways that an idea is good, we will allow that thought to remain in our psyche and expand in our imagination. Eventually, if we cater to it long enough, we will succumb to it and believe it is justified.
This is true with the sin of gossip. In order to get out of this habit, there are a few things we can practice:
- Practice custody of the mind. Fr. Ripperger talks about this often, and it means to reject thoughts against another person as soon as you think them. This isn’t easy but can be done by being aware of your thoughts and emotions before they get out of hand.
- Practice silence. If we heed the advice of St. Benedict, we will realize that it is better to refrain from speaking than to speak constantly and unnecessarily. A person who practices custody of the mouth is one who is modest, because s/he knows how to moderate his/her speech.
- Instead of saying something bad, speak to the good in another. It’s hard to do this with some people, but it is always beneficial. If you look for what is good in someone else, especially someone you dislike, your thoughts will change and your heart will soften toward them. You can give them the benefit of the doubt rather than assume the worst in them.
Find ways during your prayer today to look within and hand over your unforgiveness, bitterness, jealousy, and resentment to God. It’s far better to pray for someone who has wronged you than to be vindictive by wounding them and causing yourself or someone else to sin through gossiping. And prayer heals all wounds when we have a true spirit of charity to will the good of another and to long for salvation for all hurting souls.