Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Virtue of Doubt

Yesterday I was talking with a friend with whom I can talk BIG Things. Oh, we talk knit stitches and her dog and my cats and husbands and such like. No one can talk Big Ideas all the time. She told me a story about how a family feud got started. The people here are very accepting, but if they are outraged, then they can withdraw affection and all social connection. It can be like being shunned in those Amish or other close-knit communities when they literally turn their backs on a person and make them invisible.

I know of two brothers who have not spoken to each other for nearly 20 years now even though they live within sight of each other. They must surely see each other from time to time in town. What do they do then? What comfort can they take from the empty space where a brother used to be?

As I struggled to learn the requisite reversing maneuvers for the driving exam, I came to terms with them as a metaphor before I could manage to back my car around a corner. How many times have you wished fervently that you could take back the words that had just fallen--or in some cases been hurled--out of your mouth? How many social fender-benders could be reduced to manageable proportions with an "I'm sorry."

I am forever indebted to my Galilee congregation for the opportunity to grow into a character where it became easier to complete those social reversing maneuvers. I know better than to hope that I will ever grow into a person who never has to make such reverses. I certainly do not have that grace and I think that even the best examples of our species cannot sustain such social acrobatics all the time.

One of the strengths gained from being in a congregation is that congregants are expected to get along. Not always like each other; not even agree with each other, but find a way to harmony with each other. It is infinitely easier to reverse when you know it is expected and that you will be helped and supported to do it. As the driving manual says, if in any doubt about the safety of reversing, have someone guide you. I can get a car around a corner, but I am happy to call on help when it comes to the infinitely more complex social maneuvers of reversing.

My friend understood this well for many reasons, not least of which is that she is an elder of her church, and put it in the broader context of Christian love.

The broader community in which she and I live is one where gossip is an ongoing source of information, misinformation, amusement, and, sometimes, mischief. I learned early on that people will talk about your life whether they have facts or not. A popular description of that well-known phenomenon is, "Och aye, they dinna need to see smoke to say 'fire'."

Sometimes you can trace the source of a rumor either to a person or to a factoid that grew as it passed from person to person; most often you cannot. In its noblest form, this communication alerts neighbors and friends and distant relatives to someone who is sick or grieving or other important calls to action to help keep the community glued together. When I learned at the village shop of a friend taken ill suddenly, I passed the information to my husband who was able to visit him in the hospital. It was the last time he got to see him alive. Because of that news, he was at least able to say goodbye.

In its lowest form, gossip causes painful rifts that can take months or years to heal, if they ever heal at all.

Another friend is suffering terribly now from the bullying, malicious kind of gossip that feeds on its own power for the individual rather than for the connectedness of the community. That kind of gossip feeds on that smallest part of us that is willing to believe the worst of everything. It becomes a justification, a rationale for loosing our own personal demons.

My friend and I marveled at the power of gossip to evoke this divisiveness because we all know how unreliable the information can be. "Why," I wondered, " do people accept these conversations unexamined?" Yes, my friend responded, in this case doubt could be very valuable. Doubt could create just a moment's space to say, "Why would X want to do that? That can't be right" or "Why are you saying something like that to me?" or even "I do not want to hear such things about a friend."

We are none of us always the better self we want to be, but a moment's doubt just might provide the seed for the compassion and understanding of our better self to blossom when confronted with gossip, well intentioned or not, that threatens to tear us apart.


At 7:51 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

I think it's unsatisfied desires and needs within a person that prompt them to take pleasure in the downfall of others.

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

My dad's family were good haters. I thought I was different, but though I don't hate, a few times now I've found it possible to walk away without a backward look when I felt deeply wronged. The withdrawal of love comes more easily than I'd wish it did.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, ampiggy, I agree. In that instant when we are sorely tempted to be small and mean, if we can take a breath and look at those unmet needs, then we have an opportunity not only to prevent a social collisison but also to grow a bit in grace and wisdom. I am going to try to look at those opportunities in myself and to use them.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Hayden, I know what you mean about being good haters. There was a branch of my family like that. The last of them died alone in a bed sit apartment without even a television because she was determined to keep all her money away from "the family". I hope it gave her some pleasure, as unlikely as it seems to me, because her whole life was consumed by it.

I think it seems easier at the time to walk away because the first pain of disappointment is so intense, but later on I thin k it can be easier. I am an expressive, which means I think and talk fast and my emotions are always quite close to the surface. If I am lucky, I can buy myself enough time to get away from the situation for that first flush and get myself into a broader perspective. Alas, not always, but I am working on it.


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