"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
April 23, 2009
Sometimes gossip can be good
by Orson Scott Card

Gossip is a ward-killer, for it can cause divisions and injuries that never heal.

Long ago, in a ward far, far away, my wife happened to be walking along a corridor in the meetinghouse. She had not been at the meetings held that night -- she was only stopping by to pick up something she had lent a friend.

As she passed an open door, she happened to hear her own name being spoken, and paused in the doorway, thinking for a moment that someone had called to her.

Quite the contrary. Seated with her back to the door was a woman that we thought was a friend. She was talking about us to another sister in the ward, one that we knew only slightly because she had just moved in.

Our "friend" was telling this newcomer all about the Cards. It was some pretty nasty stuff, and not one speck of it was true.

Even if it had been true, it would have been unbelievable that this "friend" could have had any way to know about it; but when malice is in the driver's seat, logic does not have to be a passenger.

My wife listened for a while, in full view of the newcomer, who said nothing. Then she left.

We moved away from that ward not long after, but that did not mean that the poison went away.

Recently a member of our present ward, who had lived for a while in that faraway land, came to me and apologized for having believed the awful things that were still being said about me in that place.

"Now that I've had a chance to know you," she said, "I realize that you're nothing like what I was told."

Actually, my life would have been a little happier if I had not been reminded that the malice continued; but I understood how this sister felt. When you have believed a lie, and shaped your opinion of someone on the basis of it, learning the truth leads to a kind of repentance.

I'm no stranger to slander -- I've heard of the weirdest lies about myself being repeated with absolute confidence by people who have never met me. Since I chose a career in public life, and have been outspoken on controversial topics, I'm unsurprised, though it's no pleasure to be slandered.

But when such slander happens in your own ward -- in the little village where you and your family worship and serve in callings -- the pain of it can be sharp and long-lasting.

It was about a year between the start of the gossip campaign against me and our move out of that ward. It was a year in which I wondered which of the people I met with every week believed or even spread further these nasty lies.

Yet I could not answer these lies, because to make any kind of public denial would merely spread the rumors to those who had not heard them. I could only trust that those who really knew me and my family would refute the slander and uphold the reputation that we had earned through faithful service.

If such a thing has ever happened to you, I'm sure you'll understand me when I say that attending church meetings and fulfilling my callings for the year we remained in that ward was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in the Church.

It's bad enough to live with shame that you've earned by your own actions, but to be the helpless victim of malicious gossip makes it even harder to bear.

And yet ... it is not gossip itself, but malice and falsehood that cause the injury.

For there is such a thing as good gossip, too.

The movie It's a Wonderful Life contains a perfect example. When George Bailey finds himself falsely accused of embezzling money from his savings and loan, the shame of it so distresses him that he thinks of ending his life.

While he is off trying to figure out what to do -- with some heavenly help -- word spreads throughout their little town. People call each other, talk to each other, and the message is the same: "Our friend George Bailey is in trouble. He needs money, right away. If there's anything you can spare ..."

And when George comes home, resolved to face the shame and bear a penalty that he does not deserve, he finds that his friends have opened their hearts -- and their pocketbooks -- and contributed more than enough to make up the shortfall.

It was gossip that spread the word of his need -- good gossip.

What is gossip, after all? It is telling stories about people who are not present. And we all do it, all the time. In fact, gossip is the primary activity of human beings. It's part of village life.

How lonely and friendless we would feel if nobody ever talked about us in our absence!

What makes the difference between good and bad gossip?

Evil gossip is malicious -- it is designed to destroy. Good gossip is generous -- it is designed to gather help and comfort, or spread good news and build up a reputation.

Evil gossip cares nothing for truth, and even when it is true, it is twisted and spun to show the victim in the worst possible light.

Good gossip is never repeated until it is verified, and only the most generous interpretation is placed on it.

Sometimes even well-meant gossip is inappropriate. There are things we might learn about someone else that should only be told to the bishop or Relief Society president, and then dropped and never spoken of again.

Often, however, there are needs that cannot be met through official Church channels -- needs that are appropriately met by friends and fellow Saints.

How can we mourn with those that mourn, if we do not know that they are mourning? How can we bear each other's burdens, if we never find out what they are?

News of a birth spreads like wildfire -- that's good gossip. News that someone is in the hospital and could use a visit, or a meal for their family -- that's good gossip.

I remember the baptism of our handicapped son, Charlie Ben. Since it was going to take two of us to carry him down into the water, and it would take a long time to dry him off and dress him for the confirmation, we made no general announcement. We expected only family to attend.

But the word of his baptism somehow spread, and the Primary room was packed. We did not understand, until people came up to us and started explaining how Charlie Ben had touched their lives, and what he meant to them.

The word of Charlie's baptism spread as good gossip, and people came to show their love for him.

That's what a loving village does. The people share true stories, good news and bad, and use those stories to help those who need helping, comfort those who are suffering, and rejoice when good things happen to our friends.

And when a malicious story starts to spread, good gossipers say, "I don't believe it, and I wish you wouldn't tell that story." We put out gossip just as we would put out a fire at our neighbor's house.

We spread the tale no further, except perhaps to inform the bishop or Relief Society president of what is being said, and by whom, so that errors can be corrected and sources identified and, if need be, reproved with sharpness by those in authority.

As fellow-citizens in the villages of the Saints, we look after each other's reputations as carefully as we would look after each other's children.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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