Virtues are good habits of character. No one’s come up with a better way to be happy than to discover how to practice Justice, Courage, Self-Control, Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Love. They are the seven main virtues. They give us more peace inside and out.
In this seven-week series, we dig into a different virtue every week. Welcome to Week One: Justice.
A pillow on Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s sofa read, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit here next to me.” Yes, dishing the dirt is a popular hobby. So popular, in fact, that there are at least four different flavors of dirt to dish. But before we get into what they are and what to do about it, why is it a problem in the first place?
The virtue of Justice helps us give everyone what they have a right to. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? But did you know that you and I have a right to a good reputation? Sure, anyone can trash their own reputation, but we don’t have a right to do it for them. At least without a good reason, like witnessing in court or writing an employee’s job rating. But our reasons aren’t always pure. Water-cooler gossip “steals” someone’s good reputation, and we don’t have a right to do that.
As a child, I learned not to lie. So I thought gossip was okay if it was true. But looking back, I have to wonder: Was it always true? Could I possibly have known all of someone else’s motives when I didn’t even understand my own? And how many friends’ trust did I lose because they wondered what I was saying about them behind their backs?
Another word for gossip is “backbiting.” It’s tarnishing someone’s reputation behind his back. If it’s true, we call it “detraction” and if false it’s called “calumny.” And if we gossip to undermine a friendship between two other people, it’s called “tale-bearing.”
English (not just Eskimos) have many words to describe snow, which is charming to think about. But having four words for gossip is just sad. Dirt can be delicious, partly because it keeps the moral spotlight off ourselves and puts it on someone else. But in the end, it makes our own hands (and hearts) dingy.
So what can we do about it?
The #1 tip to avoid gossip is to focus on minding our own business and staying out of others’. Then our mind is free for more positive things, like looking for that person’s good qualities. Really—this turns out to be kind of fun when we step back and see it as a creative challenge. Write one thing about them that is admirable. It breaks the “fight” response in our brain and allows the reasoning part of our brain to take control. It improves our whole outlook on life because we are seeing other people as God sees them—with mercy and unconditional love.
Does that mean we need to condone what other people do? No. It just means that we’re leaving the matter between them and God. Or as Jesus would have it, taking out the beam in our own eye before we complain about the speck in someone else’s.