We live in an age of openness. News, gossip, opinions, and images spread like wildfire over the internet. We put a lot of energy into curating Facebook walls and Instagram feeds to show our followers a desirable image. But watch out. One tweet can ruin your life, warns the New York Times. Years ago, a relative of mine who works in politics said something to me that stayed with me: “Operate as if everything you say, write, or type is tattooed on your forehead.”

As wives, friends, or mothers, we occupy powerful positions. I see my loved ones at their lowest, grumpiest, holey-sweat-pant moments. The annoying habit my husband has? Noted. The toddler tantrum over the wrong cup? I’m there. The parenting mistake my friend made? Saw it. If one tweet can ruin my life, I should be just as careful with others’ reputations.

I’m able to wound the reputations of the ones I stand closest to. And “wound” is an appropriate term, considering what the Heavenly Doctrine says about the fifth commandment. Besides not murdering, “’You shall not kill’ means not taking the spiritual life away from anyone, also not destroying faith and charity, and not hating the neighbor” (Arcana Coelestia 8902). The passage cites the Gospel of Matthew:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgement. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgement. Whoever indeed says to his brother, Raca! will be liable to the Sanhedrin. And whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (5:21-22)

Arcana Coelestia 8902 goes on to note, “Hatred towards the neighbor is meant by ‘being angry without cause with his brother’, and degrees of greater hatred are described by saying to him, Raca! and calling him, You fool.’” I’m trying to notice “Raca” tendencies in myself. With a cutting, witty Facebook post, I could make my friend or spouse look like a fool on the screens of hundreds of others. With a mocking, confessional blog post, I could embarrass my toddler today for his developmentally appropriate tantrum, and the record will be there for the rest of his life.

Yes, our loved ones’ faults can be challenging, and humor helps lighten everyone’s outlook. Let’s not use it at their expense, without their consent. I’m trying to be mindful of the difference between a metaphorical elbow in the ribs–all in good fun–and a spiritual dagger that springs from anger, thoughtlessness, or contempt. Gently teasing my husband in public is fine; airing his faults isn’t. Talking with others about the challenges of raising children is OK; venting about my kid in ways that negatively affect the way the community views him isn’t.

Women especially deal in connections and emotional currency. We hold uniquely powerful positions. Let’s not tolerate the shaming of men and children. I can skip those dumb-ol’-dad commercials and shows, with the savvy woman barely containing her contempt for her idiotic spouse. I can avoid the nasty trend of “child sign shaming.” (Google that if you want to feel depressed.) You might see an image of a sleeping newborn with a piece of paper on her stomach: “I start screaming the second mummy sits down for dinner.” A little girl holds a sign reading, “I threw a bowl of pasta on the carpet. Then I refused to clean it up.” Both are frustrating, developmentally appropriate behaviors, not material for mom’s or dad’s online standup routine.

I see a use in guarding our loved ones’ moments of weakness, mistakes, or intimate personal details. Describing reasons that married partners separate, the work Conjugial Love notes that “conjugial love is a conjunction of minds; wherefore if the mind of one goes off in a contrary direction from that of the other the conjunction is dissolved and with it love departs” (252). One of the things that drives a wedge between married partners, among many listed in the passage, is “the utmost pleasure of gabbling, and talking of nothing but what is insignificant and frivolous; an unbridled propensity to divulge the secrets of home….” In this era of open books and transparency, let’s strive for discretion and mercy.

Here’s something I wish I’d realized sooner: the way I treat someone—the beliefs I have about that person—affect the way others behave toward that person and how that person thinks about himself or herself. Studies indicate this is true in student achievement and behavior. Surely the same is true outside of school. If I act as though my husband is worthy of my scorn, this can harm his standing in other relationships. If I talk about my daughter like she’s a delinquent, I color the way others think of her and worse, how she thinks about herself. It’s like an extension of the Golden Rule: do unto people the way you want others to do unto them.

We hold the “secrets of the home” and the reputations of our closest neighbors in our hands. I can try to hold them gently. The prayer from the Psalms seems appropriate here: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the doors of my lips” (141:3).

6 thoughts on “Reputation

  1. thank you Taryn! I really appreciate the way you distinguish between constructive vs destructive ways of treating others in public (as in discussing challenges of raising children vs laughing publicly at our kids’ faults). We have just given our thirteen year old daughter a cell phone for the first time. I think we were all lucky that she didn’t need one earlier (she would beg to differ though!). Now that she has access to the web and all the social media options that come with it I am going to give her your article to read. There are many others on the same subject that are targeted more teenagers but I so appreciate the way you integrated the Writings in such a practical and contemporary way. Thank you, because I do not have that wonderful gift! xxx

  2. Thank you Taryn. This was a good thoughtful way to start out the morning.

    “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” ~C. S. Lewis “The Weight of Glory”

    1. What a gem of a quote, Dara! Thank you for sharing this. I do love the way the C.S. Lewis expresses things.

  3. Thank you, Taryn! I have been reflecting on the importance of protecting people’s reputations, since a sullied reputation can really limit a person’s ability to serve others and to grow. It’s always useful to remember that our words are powerful, and we should try to use that power for good.

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