“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
It’s a commandment. Not a suggestion.
It’s a Commandment, Not a Suggestion
Over the weekend, I watched as gossip flowed about the disappearance of “A” and her baby “C.’ “A”, as you may recall, is an internet acquaintance, someone I met via social media. I followed her blog, enjoyed the frequent photos of her family, and loved her fashion sense. She seemed to have the life I had once yearned for: a big, bustling family of six, a farm with animals, the works.
On January 20, 2019, “A” and her infant daughter “C” disappeared from her church. She walked out with the baby and hasn’t been seen since. Her family has contacted the police and just wants to know that they are safe. They extended a plea for help finding her on social media.
That’s when Jesus probably rolled his eyes and pointed at the scroll of the law and said, “Guys, not bearing false witness is a commandment – not a suggestion.”
Because people love to gossip…especially on social media.
First came all the nosy Nancys, the armchair detectives who seemed to think they did a better job at finding missing persons than the local police department. Not bothering to read any of the previous messages on any of the group threads, not bothering to even take a minute to wonder if their questions were helpful, they posted gems like this:
“Did anyone check to see if there are cameras nearby?”
“Was her wallet missing?”
“Did she take her phone?”
“Did anyone check to make sure her husband was really at church with her like he says?”
Does anyone truly think the police are so stupid they would not check any of this?
It wasn’t these well-meaning but annoying people that really got under my skin. It was the groups popping up like lawn mushrooms, thousands of people overnight joining groups that were not for the purpose of FINDING A and C…but dissecting their lives and the lives of their family.
They posted screenshots of private messages between A’s husband and members explaining some of the back stories. I doubt her husband intended these messages for public consumption. They shared old newspaper articles they found about her history. Some cackled that they were going to find her medical records to prove all sorts of allegations.
None of this, of course, helps to find A and C.
Respect for the Reputation of Persons
The Catechism of the Catholic church forbids us from gossip. (The # refers to the numbered rule in the catechism. It’s a huge book so Catholics number it to make it easier to refer to when we teach about it or study it.)
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
Are You Helping or Harming?
We have to ask ourselves every day, “Is this comment helping or harming someone?”
Our current cultural climate encourages us to gossip. There are shows on television devoted to gossip. We devour it. Crime shows, talk shows, even so-called self-help shows like Dr. Phil encourage us to dissect strangers’ lives and consider aloud how we would do better. We pat ourselves on the back like the Pharisees and say, “Lord, thank you for not making me like THAT.”
Social media is particularly vile in that it encourages us to treat people like objects and not as real human beings. What I see unfolding in front of me is A and her family being treated like objects for discussion, speculation, and gawking.
Meanwhile, a baby and her mother remain missing.
Yes, It’s Personal
After exchanging some heated words on the official Facebook page set up by A’s family to find her, I was accused of being critical, defensive, and yes, mean. I apologized for causing offense, then sat on my hands for the rest of the weekend so I wouldn’t add anything I might regret later.
I knew something inside myself was “off” by my reaction this weekend. I couldn’t focus, I ate too much junk food, I sat around staring at the computer or the television. I wasn’t acting like myself. I had laundry to do, cleaning to do, bread to bake, soup to make, menus to plan for the week, and a pile of great books to read before the gardening season begins and I get too busy to read, not to mention books to write for my readers! But I sat around eating junk food and staring at the computer monitor or watching the very addictive Monty Roberts Gardens of Italy on Netflix.
What gives? I reflected on my actions and realized yes, something was really wrong. I was over-reacting to the whole situation. “A” wasn’t family. She wasn’t even a close friend, but I was behaving as if she were my sister. As if she were me. Why? Why was I getting so angry at the liars out there? People do this all the time, and I’ve never felt so angry at gossipers before.
It was while working on my new novel, tentatively called “All the Lonely People”, that I realized what was making me so angry.
I haven’t talked much about this new novel because I know many people are eager for the next Majek family story. I have a draft written of the new Majek book and it needs polishing and revising, but every time I sit down to work on it, this new book beckons.
It’s highly autobiographical and draws from my experiences growing up in Floral Park. Some sections, in fact, are so painful to write about that I found myself putting the book aside.
It wasn’t until this morning when I wrote about my main character, Abigail, and her friend Terese that I realized why I was becoming so defensive and angry for A’s sake. The character in my new book, Abigail, is in sixth grade, right around the age in which this story takes place, and her mom has issues. Let’s just leave it at that (no spoilers!)
When I was in first grade, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Today there are new medications that control the progression of the disease but in the early 1970s, there wasn’t much to offer patients with M.S. My mom’s disease progressed swiftly so that she went from being an active mother and class mom to being housebound very quickly.
One of the ways in which her immune system attacked her nerves was to attack both her ability to walk and her speech. Her speech grew very slurred and difficult for people outside the family to understand.
Before her illness made her housebound, my mom had many friends (or so we thought). Ladies from church, from the Rosary Altar Society, parents of my schoolmates. My mom called them on the telephone to keep in touch.
One day, I overheard two mothers who volunteered at school talking. I caught my mom’s name.
It seems my mom had called one of them the evening before. These two women, standing in the hallway of my Catholic school, were gossiping and twittering behind their hands (before Twitter existed) about my mom. They wondered if she was an alcoholic and made snide remarks about her drinking. The “proof” was her slurred speech.
I was so angry I wanted to jump in and punch these self-righteous biddies in the nose. But I was just a kid, so I stuffed my hands in my blazer pocket and powered by them heading to my fifth-grade class.
All of this came up for me this morning as I wondered whether or not the charge of being too defensive of A was really the case. Yes, I had been defensive. And angry. My anger ran deep into the core of my being and no, it wasn’t really for A. It was and it wasn’t. It was for A and for my mother and for every other human being who is slandered and maligned by hateful gossip.
God help me, I’ve been behind some of that gossip myself. I’ve prayed for forgiveness for all my past sins of gossip and idle talk that may have hurt someone, and I am being very careful now with my thoughts and words.
“A” has a child around the age I was in fifth grade when I heard those two women making accusations that my poor mother was a drunk because her speech was slurred. She used to post photos of him at horseback riding lessons. I loved horses too (and still do). It was another thing that I often felt connected me to A’s life — her love of horses and animals and farm life.
I realize now that my deep anger at these gossiping biddies on Facebook who were destroying A’s family with their speculation was really caused by the child within me once again furious and feeling helpless about gossip. I was reacting from the past, not from the present, and ready to rip the heads off of the ladies in the group who were taking that eighth commandment as a suggestion – not a commandment.
Think Before You Speak. Speak Only What Is True.
This is all I ask, friends. Think before you speak. Speak only what is true.
Do not engage in idle speculation or gossip about anyone.
Somewhere, there’s a child like my younger self hearing bad things said about their parent. They can’t do anything about it – when you’re a kid, especially a good kid growing up in a Catholic family, it’s drilled into you to be respectful of your elders.
So you suck it up, and stuff down all the angry feelings, and hear all the mean talk, and you can’t do anything about it.
All it takes is for people to recognize gossip when it happens and step away. I stepped out of all the gossipy groups about A’s disappearance because I didn’t like where it was pulling my mind. It made me wonder and speculate and think about all the possible reasons why she left. I don’t want to do that. I just want her family to have peace and for her baby to be back with her father and for the whole family to be healed.
That takes prayer, not gossip. If we only used the energy we pour into hateful words with others for a heart-to-heart talk with God, we could change the world.