As Rosh Hashanah, a great time for introspection and self-examination, comes to a close, I’m reminded of an oft told story regarding gossip and slander that has been adapted in various folk tales and by several communities of faith. Rather than retell one of the many variants here, I offer you links to several versions that which taken as a whole, paint the picture that I wish to share.
- A Pillow Full of Feathers by Shoshannah Brombacher
- The Feathers of Gossip: How our Words can Build Up or Tear Down by Edward P. Sri
- Gossip: Feathers in the Wind by Ray Pritchard
- Feathers on the Wind by Jessica York
- Feathers in the Wind by Bob Burg
- Feathers in the Wind, unattributed reference in a NY State Troopers PSA
We all have our story, and for some of us, it’s all that we can do to hold back certain parts of it, not to putting it out there and vindicating ourselves in the face of malicious slanders. I subscribe to the principle of avoiding lashon hara—a Hebrew phase that translates “evil speech”—which goes way beyond not simply gossiping. More than not saying only that which is known to be to true, which would be a great start for many, I actively avoid even speaking the truth when it would cast someone in an unnecessarily negative light. Living by Stewart’s Rede, I desire to speak only that which is true, kind and necessary, communicating only that which is beneficial of others except when absolutely necessary in a few well-defined limited circumstances; however, I have fallen short of this on occasion, and my conscience requires me to acknowledge and apologize for this, doing what I can to make this right.
Several years ago I was in a situation in which I was mutually at fault for my role in its creation. I made several mistakes of judgement and someone responded adversely to it in ways that cost me greatly. While a few of the people involved in or aware of the situation at that time noted to me privately after the fact that my mistakes were relatively minor and that I didn’t deserve the negative treatment that I received, they nonetheless supported the other person through it and to this day have not acknowledged either their role in this or the damage that both this person’s and their contributory misdeeds caused. Much to my shame, I went to some lengths to defend myself through “just telling the truth” in a manner that cast many of them in quite a bad light.
Regarding the principle person with whom I was experiencing this interpersonal conflict, I have said to several persons the things that were shared with me regarding them and their actions and how I responded. While this isn’t a problem in and of itself per se, the fact that I mentioned their name in relation to their actions is. I was acting out of a place of pain and unforgiveness. I deeply regret this choice. I wish that I could take this back, but I can’t. I can only acknowledge my error and apologize. If presented the opportunity to do so directly to this person of whom I spoke, I would gladly.
About a year ago, I made an error in judgement in a particular circumstance, accidentally hurting a friend and impacting several others. While I can say with a clear conscience that I was only doing that which I had done dozens of times before in the same situation, nevertheless the negative consequences were felt by them and I deeply regret it. I tried to apologize at that time, and as is my habit when acknowledging things for which I feel shame and sorrow, I was overly formal in my manner of speech, using language that caused the friend who was injured to disbelieve me, going so far as to accuse me of giving them “some story” to cover myself.
Another now former friend, someone who also was impacted by my mistake, was so upset over this that they blew up at me in public in front of several mutual friends and others. In a fit of heated passion in response to this person doing the same with another person regarding a different issue, I wrote of my situation in a comment to a post on one of that person’s social media accounts with very harsh words without mentioning names so as to avoid lashon hara, but unfortunately I gave enough information so that several people could identify them. A mutual friend immediately called me out on the bad choice that I made, for which I’m grateful. I corrected myself and softened my tone; however, the damage had been done, and my interpersonal relationship with my estranged friend has never been the same.
Then there is the case of my most recent relationship. Fortunately I have not erred in this situation by even mentioning their name when sharing with a limited circle of friends what I’ve experienced in my ex’s betrayal of and slanders towards me. There are two people who were mutual friends who directly asked me about what my ex had said about me, and to them alone have I shared those details that I believed were appropriate given what they had asked. I’m grateful that I can trust them to keep my confidence and not spread even the truth about this situation.
Because of my ex’s slanders compounding with the aforementioned mistakes that I made, as well as the pain of my ex’s betrayal and the memories of my love for and time spent with them, I avoid the whole of the community in which they and I met. I have been advised by several otherwise well meaning friends with whom I’ve discussed these things—without giving them sufficiently identifying information—that I should fully tell my side of the story, knowing that it would absolve me in the eyes of many, enabling me to “safely” return to this community. I refuse. I choose to stay away and abstain from one of the activities that I most love so as to avoid having to do so.
I can see in the slanders against me the truth of the spiritual law that we reap what we sow, and that speaking in anything less than kindness and necessity, even when it be the truth, places one under a curse until it has been resolved. I am deeply sorry for having let my tongue wag when I should have trusted my God and Heavenly Father to go before me and plead my case, and I here offer my apology, and will gladly do so face to face.
I’m reminded of an adage that my father would share when advising me regarding learning from such mistakes: “If nothing else, may my life serve as a warning to those who follow after.” Please, I beg of you, avoid “evil speech”. The power of life and death is in the tongue. We can destroy reputations and lives through the power of our words. Please, let’s consider how we feel when such is done to us, and never do the same to others.
If we’ve made this mistake, and most of us have, we owe it to those affected to acknowledge and apologize for it. If we’ve engaged in slander, we also have the duty to humble ourselves and to tell the truth to those who received that slander. While we may not be able to undo the damage, we can at the very least do our best to minimize it going forward—and we can ensure that we never make this mistake again.