Gossip feels therapeutic. When we are feeling down, nothing can anesthetize our blues better than negative news about someone else.
Writer Anne Lamott describes a moment once when she felt tired and broke. She was exhausted of caring for her newborn by herself day and night, and her savings were pretty much gone. In a few minutes her self-esteem took a downhill curve and she started to feel like a loser. So when a friend called and mentioned that a fellow writer did not get a good review for his first book at Newsweek, then
… all of a sudden, talking on the cordless phone and nursing my baby in the moonlight, I had a wicked, dazzling bout of schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is that wicked and shameful tickle of pleasure one feels at someone else’s misfortune. It felt like I’d gotten a little hit by something. It made me feel better about myself.
Then Lamott found herself asking her friend to find the article, and speaking in an almost innocent voice, requested him to read it. “And when he was done, I said, ‘Man, that was like Christmas for me.’ Then we laughed, and it was okay for a minute.”
People’s misfortunes are the handiest anesthetic against self-pity. Nothing soothes our soul malaise quicker than focusing on someone else’s failure. We know we still have to face our shortcomings, but we don’t feel so low if we manage to watch someone falling down with us. Thus Lamott describes the bittersweet effect of reveling over another person’s limitations. “God, it was painful though, too, and the hangover was debilitating. I was deeply aware of the worm inside of me and of the grim bits that I feed it. The secret envy inside me is maybe the worst thing about my life. I am the Saddam Hussein of jealousy.”
Jealousy separates us from others, and it separates us from ourselves. We feel so above those little unfortunate losers over there, yet in the process we notice that we are deeper still in the mud. We are the ones who deserve pity; we are the ones with the big void in our heart; we are the ones delighting in failure because we feel a failure ourselves. Gossip is a bittersweet medicine; its relief is brief but is also toxic.
“It is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil to learning good of his neighbor,” assesses Luther. When we feel on on trial, we want to put others on trial. We are unsure of our worth, and we reason that maybe our share will be more valuable if the whole market crashes down.
How different it is when we hear good things about us, but how even better when we speak good things about others. We feel like building bridges, like lifting people up, and we feel lifted ourselves. We notice some curious words on our lips: example, encouragement, inspiration, and notice those same feelings on our hearts. We raise someone before another person’s eyes, yet we are the greatest benefits of our sincere praise.
Praise is the medication for gossip. It fills our sense of void and heals our insecurities in a way bad news about others simply cannot. And maybe that’s why the Christian faith calls us to praise so often: sincere praise of others, and above all, praise and adoration of God. For when we see loving truth on our lips, and acknowledge goodness and beauty beyond ourselves, even in people we feel competitive toward, our little swamp receives a ray of light, and the mud starts to dry and to form a ground solid enough to stand.