Last weekend I led a high school retreat that ended up being an all boys retreat. I wrestled with whether I should change the session topics or not, but realized these were pertinent topics for a group of boys to muse over together. The first session focused on trash talking and the second focused on conflict. In one of our discussions the topic of gossip was brought up. I was disheartened when one of the guys said that gossip will always be around. There’s nothing we can really do about it. It’s just the way it is. Everyone nodded in agreement.
I’ve wrestled with this moment ever since it happened. I’ve struggled with it because when we give into this kind of thinking, we are basically giving up on ourselves. We are giving up on who we are and who we can be together. We accept the story of our worst fears – the story that comes from the deepest shadows of our nature – as the only story of who we are. It doesn’t have to be a “big” issue in society because in even the “small” aspects of communal behavior, like gossip, we wash our hands of culpability, we throw our hands in the air, we give up. It’s an understandable reaction when facing the interwoven systems, relationships, and perspectives involved in community. It’s easy to feel small and meaningless, or that we have no way of making a difference in it all.
Ugh. Gossip. Just words, just jokes, no big deal. Some might even say, “Words don’t kill people.” But we know that’s not true. We know that seemingly innocuous words can launch a landslide of hurt for everyone involved. We know this, so why does it take hurt and even worse, suicide, for us to remember that words have power. Words can be weapons. Why does it take the worst case scenario for us to wonder aloud if there could possibly be another way?
We are more than our fears, more than the things we most despise about ourselves. We don’t have to live in reaction to the life that happens around us, but can instead reclaim our original design as co-creators in this world. We can reclaim our lives by living into existence the life we hope for as individuals and as a community. We cannot have one without the other. When one suffers, we all suffer. Rather than giving up on Us, we need to give up on the idea that we can do it all by ourselves, or that something like gossip is a problem only driven by one person; thus, only dealt with on an individual basis. It is not an either/or issue. Most issues (all issues?) cannot be solved by either/or thinking, but are best understood and solved by a both/and perspective. We need to both do our personal/individual work and the work together as a community to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”
It is up to us to own our individual claim in the world we live in. We must take responsibility for ourselves, make the habitual changes necessary, and live in the moment with mindfulness and awareness. Do not be distracted by faux-community life where re-posts, likes, memes, and triggered emotions rule, locking us in towers built by the stones of our judgement and limited perspectives. Look around and pay attention to the people right next to you. These are the people that we can see, touch, talk to, and live community together. This is where we see the difference our small lives can make in the entirety of it all.
It is up to us as a community to own the ways we affect one another, positively or negatively, whether we know each other or not. We must take responsibility for the ways that our individual benefits may be at the expense of others. We must respect the power that some of us have within a particular group and utilize this power to model, enact, and bring about the community that we long for together.
We can do this. I know we can. We can live a new way into being together. It won’t be easy. It won’t happen by one person alone. It won’t happen overnight. But it can happen moment by moment, relationship by relationship, ripple by ripple. It can happen if we humble ourselves enough to live compassionately; if we live with grace for ourselves and one another. When some of us stumble we can lift them up, knowing that at one point it might be us who needs to be lifted up. We can forgive. Oh that’s hard. But we can. We can recognize that we don’t individually have all of the answers, but we might when we listen to each other. Piece by piece our community can come together. Don’t give up on each other. Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t give up.
In closing, I’d like to share one of the readings from this weekend’s retreat. It also happens to be one of my favorite writings from Paul, from 1 Corinthians chapter 12 (NRSV):
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.