Our local pool opened this month—the literal and metaphorical watering hole of the neighborhood. Moms gather to apply sunscreen to their tribes, hover over young swimmers, and chat. Mostly we stick to small talk. Sometimes we get into deeper topics like education or marriage. And sometimes we stray into gossip.
“I heard Mark’s wife just up and left.”
“Did you see Claire’s new haircut?”
“Ashley is having another baby, bless her heart.”
Are we supposed to feel sorry for Mark, or are we questioning his qualities as a husband? The remark about Claire’s new look could imply admiration, or it could be veiled criticism of her taste. And while I hope we’re meant to be happy for Ashley, the comment might mean she’s out of her depth and going deeper. Bless her heart.
I don’t often gossip, but when I do, I have a lot of fun doing it. Fortunately I know that fun does not always equal good. We can experience good delights and bad delights—a profound idea of the New Christianity.
I’m especially vulnerable to the bad delights of gossip. I grew up in a family of private people. One side effect of this: information has become something of a currency for me—almost a “love language.” As a recent transplant in our Georgia neighborhood, I like the sense of belonging that comes along with gossip. If people tell me about their or someone else’s health, finances, past experiences, etc., I feel I’ve made it to the inner circle. I’m trusted, valued. And I want to return the favor.
Here’s the thing, though: facts aren’t just facts. Truth can be a sword or a plow—a weapon or a tool for cultivation—depending on how we wield it. Consider this passage:
“They who in the world have been of such a quality, that is, have understood truths and yet have lived a life of evil, are in the other life also of this quality, but there abuse their capacity to understand truths in order to acquire dominion.” (Arcana Coelestia 4802:2)
With this in mind, I’m trying to be vigilant about my conversations. Am I using information to establish social dominance? Am I sacrificing someone else’s reputation to carve out a place for myself? The word “sacrifice” is apt here, knowing what the doctrines say: that harming someone’s reputation is a sort of murder (True Christian Religion 309).
Gossip hurts everyone. Obviously, it’s not good for friendship. If a person talks about another behind her back, you have every reason to believe she’d do the same to you. Gossip also hurts the gossiper. If someone spends all her time picking someone else apart, she becomes less able to examine herself for faults (True Christian Religion 564:3). This kind of talk harms her relationship to the source of good and truth: the Lord. I can’t read this number without wincing:
“[‘Societies of friendship’] are composed of those who in the life of the body preferred to every other delight that of conversation, and who loved those with whom they conversed, not caring whether they were good or evil, provided they were entertaining; and thus who were not friends to good or to truth.” (Arcana Coelestia 4804)
Ugh, so what am I supposed to talk about if the “fun” topics are off-limits? In the Arcana, there’s a useful number about spirits who love to talk.:
“They who correspond to the mouth are continually desiring to speak, for in speaking they find their greatest pleasure. When they are being perfected they are reduced to this—that they do not speak anything but what is of service to their companions, to the common good, to heaven, and to the Lord. The delight of so speaking is enhanced with them in the degree of the loss of the desire to regard themselves in their speech, and to seek wisdom from their own.” (Arcana Coelestia 4803)
I gather from this passage that it’s ok to love to converse. Angels who have an affection for speaking correspond to the mouth of the Grand Man, and they get lots of good delight from it. But they’ve set aside any conversation that doesn’t serve their neighbors or the Lord, and they don’t think they’re the source of truth.
I’m no Pollyanna, but I’ve been trying to stick to conversation that looks to the good and befriends the truth. I’m no longer the newest newcomer to the neighborhood. Some women have arrived more recently or are more reserved than me, so if I’m feeling chatty, I can use that impulse to make connections. I can cultivate new relationships and be a real friend to my neighbors and the Lord.
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” Psalm 141:3