No moon; no stars. Ancient darkness: trees and an occasional barn silhouetted blacker against the vast fields of nothingness that grew them. A lone country road, rocky and unused, sloped on either side into a ditch deep enough to hide a soul. A car pulls off to the side. The young driver: twenty, blonde, buzzed and single; she wants to kiss the married man in the passenger seat. Oh baby, he says, oh baby, my wife just doesn’t understand me. She’s not understood either; it’s enough of an excuse. She leans in. They kiss. And it tastes of desperation. Shame. This is not who she is. This is a moment, a bad one, when her loneliness, intolerable and black, has opened the door to a stranger’s morality. She pulls away. Eyes widen and the part of her that remains, smiles inside her brain: Karma. Oh my God, she says, please don’t look. I gotta pee so bad! Not yet prepared to share this intimacy. She leaves the car and squats with her back pressed against the door. Like an animal, she is relieved. Black magic is broken. Face reddened but hidden, she sits back in the car. He leans in, kissing; she pulls away, driving him back—leaving him—in his broken place. She knows what she did wrong; every step she knows. Part of her soul is lying in that ditch. Stupid, stupid girl!
Lindsey Lohan? Paris Hilton? Britney Spears?
No. Me. Two decades ago. How I damned myself: look what my loneliness let in.
Can you imagine if someone was there with a camera to record every bad decision I made that night? If I was a celebrity, I’d be condemned on every entertainment news program or torn apart on the Internet. If I was just me, my annihilation would be delivered via YouTube. Mom would be so proud. And for ugly days or uglier weeks, until something more scandalous came along, the world would gossip. Never knowing who I was or how I got to the point I did, the world would have an opinion. None of it would be useful. It would only distract; suffocating me in high drama instead of finding a way to heal within what was obviously damaged.
But I was lucky: I got to face myself by myself. Today, people aren’t that fortunate. Gossip is a bully. A black hole. A well and constantly fed one.
Oh, you thought this was about me? No. I’m not always proud of who I used to be but I dealt with the pain that drove me to those behaviors. I have compassion for that girl; she was small but she grew. She and I remember. Remembering opens my compassion; it helps me to look past the gossip.
Gossip sometimes tweaks my faith in humanity. Faith in myself even: sometimes I do gossip and sometimes I watch it. In this million miles a minute culture, it would take not owning a television or not talking to family and friends to avoid gossip. But its availability is just an excuse; sometimes I simply feel titillated and superior or I laugh. In that moment, I know there is something wrong with me: that I’m judging another human being at his or her most vulnerable just so I can avoid facing the weakness rampaging inside of me.
Kind of sick when you think about it.
Get off your high horse. It’s just harmless fun.
When I was a senior in high school, a classmate I knew by name but avoided because she was quiet and big and menacing and I was quiet, small and not, approached me before class one day.
“I want to talk to you,” she demanded. “What’s this I hear you want to kick my ass?”
“What?” I was a raccoon treed by a rabid dog.
“I said,” she said louder, “I heard you want to kick my ass!”
“Why would I want to kick your ass? I don’t even know you!” Then I blurted something really stupid, “I don’t even consider you.”
Her smirk was a readying fist. I danced backward, feet slipping in sweat. “What I mean is I don’t know anything about you to even know if I’d want to kick your ass. As far as I’m concerned, you’re cool.”
Logic worked on the beast.
“So you never said that?”
“No!” my voice was a bit too loud, too desperate. Look at me; look at you: you’d be wearing me as a new coat before I landed the first punch. “Seriously,” I looked directly into her eyes, “I never said that. I never even thought it. You got to believe me!”
Okay? That’s it? She sat down as if nothing happened leaving me with the uneasy taste that someone in my school took the time to bully me indirectly. I never found out who spread the lie or why. It never happened again but gossip almost got my ass handed to me. Someone I perhaps slighted or someone who was miserable—or worse, bored—had offered me up for revenge or amusement.
Harmless fun. Sure.
Never mind taking into account the people being gossiped about—the singer who steps over a paparazzo lying on the ground shooting pictures up her skirt; the drunk teenager puking in her hair as girls she calls friends record and post it on the Internet; the high school blog that makes a skinny boy’s life hell—what is gossip doing to us? As individuals? As a culture? Why are so many of us just so damn mean? And why has it become acceptable to ruin lives? It’s not just hormonal adolescents that are technological terrorists; it’s adults who are old enough to know better. News broadcasts check facts less and less just so their loud and obnoxious opinion czar can take the first bite. Political parties root around in their opponents’ garbage cans and tornado words and events out of context. Magazine covers and entertainment shows—how many are there now?—and website after website are devoted to the rise and fall of celebrities. From the top down, we live in a land of half-truths; we make our money and lose our souls on lies. On gossip.
Are we that hateful? That miserable? That bored? Because our culture has gone beyond building up people—whether a pop star or the head cheerleader—only to tear them down. It has destroyed the sacred. The sacredness of privacy. The sacredness of making bad judgments and learning from them in our own time; of being human and all the glory and ugliness that entails. We are not allowed to be human nor are we allowed to fail. Not anymore.
That’s important. Every one of us has been stupid. Every one of us has found ourselves, in one way or another, on a dark road in a situation and with people not good for us. Sometimes we learn from that. Sometimes we repeat those lessons. But those are our lessons; no one else has a right to judge them, to crack them open like ribs in an autopsy for the world to ogle at through half-closed hands.
Thank God no one but my own sense of morality was there to record the images of my most vulnerable moments. No one can condemn me more than I have. But if I had to share those embarrassing times with the world while I was enduring them, then I never would have discovered my own way out of the darkness. I never would have learned the sacredness of forgiving myself.
Perhaps that is something we should be talking about.