I wrote a while back about being the subject of a LOT of local gossip and rumors, and how painful it was to be the subject of such horrible things. At the time, I didn't get into specifics, but in addition to the emotional toll, the financial toll was pretty severe. I own a business that struggles pretty regularly, but is growing - financially, we do just a little bit better every single year.

When the worst of the rumors hit, we had the worst month that we'd ever had, in over 5 years of business. Business that month declined over 50%. In addition to not being able to take paychecks that month, we added the cost of doctor's visits and medication for me, because the stress of the situation was so severe. During this time, lots of people told me that the best course of action was to "just ignore" the rumors. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible. Rumors were literally affecting every corner of my life.

As our business started to recover, and as I started to recover, I found this folktale:

There was once a young fellow with a nasty problem: he talked too much about other people. He could not help himself. Whenever he heard a story about somebody he knew, and sometimes about somebody he did not know, he just had to tell it to his friends. Since he was in business, he heard quite a lot of rumors and stories. He loved the attention he got, and was delighted when they laughed because of the way he told his “anecdotes,” which he sometimes embellished with little details he invented to make them funnier and juicier. Other than that, he was really a pleasant, goodhearted man. One day he heard something about another businessman in town. Of course he felt compelled to share what he had heard with his colleagues, who told it to their friends, who told it to people they knew, who told it to their wives, who spoke with their friends and their neighbors. It went around town, till the unhappy businessman who was the main character in the story heard it. He ran to the rabbi of the town, and wailed and complained that he was ruined!

 Nobody would like to deal with him after this. His good name and his reputation were gone with the wind

Now this rabbi knew his customers, so to speak, and he decided to summon the man who loved to tell stories. If he was not the one who started them, he might at least know who did.

When the nice man with the nasty problem heard from the rabbi how devastated his colleague was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly had not considered it such a big deal to tell this story, because he had heard it was true; the rabbi could ask anyone. The rabbi sighed.

“True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all lashon hara and hotzaat shem ra, slander, and it’s like murder—you kill a person’s reputation.” He said a lot more, and the man who started the rumor now felt really bad and sorry. “What can I do to make it undone?” he sobbed. “I will do anything you say!”
The rabbi looked at him. “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?” “Rabbi, I am not poor; I have many feather pillows. But what do you want me to do, sell them?”
“No, just bring me one.”
The man was mystified, but he returned a bit later to the rabbi’s study with a nice fluffy pillow under his arm. The rabbi opened the window and handed him a knife. “Cut it open!”
“But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!”
“Do as I say!”
And the man cut the pillow. A cloud of feathers came out. They landed on the chairs and on the bookcase, on the clock, on the cat which jumped after them. They floated over the table and into the teacups, on the rabbi and on the man with the knife, and a lot of them flew out of the window in a big swirling, whirling trail.
The rabbi waited ten minutes. Then he ordered the man: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not even one may be missing!”

The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible, Rabbi. The ones here in the room I might get, most of them, but the ones that flew out of the window are gone. Rabbi, I can’t do that, you know I cannot!”
“Yes,” said the rabbi and nodded gravely, “that is how it is: once a rumor, a gossipy story, a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it ends up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never, ever get it back.”
 It seems to be human nature to believe the worst about someone and to share that news with our friends....neighbors....customers. We're so ready to assume the worst regarding another’s actions, allowing ourselves to believe that the words we're throwing to the wind won't really matter. We seem blissfully unaware or uncaring that the gossip we speak can — and often does — significant damage to the subject of the gossip.
I'm not innocent of this - not by any means. It was only when this touched my own life so painfully that I truly realized the damage that "just words" can do.

I had an art show recently, and shared the paintings that had been part of working through the past year's events. People asked me about the feathers and the elephants. The elephants had to do with two things. I had watched a movie (Frank - probably one of my favorite movies) where the central character spent his entire life hiding inside a large, paper mache mask. At the time, I felt like all of my pain and humiliation was so visible to the world, and I just wanted to be able to go about my life without people seeing me cry all.of.the.time. I wanted to live inside of a mask. 

I was also reading a lot about the social structure of elephants and how these herds of elephants would just...take care of each other. They would risk their own lives to save each other, they traveled to honor their dead, they stood up together in the face of extreme danger....I felt so betrayed in my own life by people I had considered friends...I wanted that "elephant bond."

And the feathers...well...feathers are words, gone with the wind. At the beginning of my show, I placed 100 feathers around the room. At the end of the night, there were 14. I found some later...stepped on, wet, twisted....not even remotely resembling the original feathers that I placed around the room.

Not even remotely resembling the truth. 

And the rest of the feathers...I'll never get them back.

I hate that the past year was the way that it was. But I'm also grateful that I could learn such a powerful lesson. Our words are never "just words." They have the power to lift people up, and they have the power to tear people apart, and once they are spoken, they can never be taken back.  My hope is that I will always carry this lesson with me, and that my words will be spoken with only good intentions.

Actually...I know I'll always carry this lesson with me. It means that much.

1 comment:

Amy Talcott said...

Well I just think you're lovely. Accept how you feel. Take it one day at a time. Enjoy the good days. Take care of yourself on the bad ones. Talk to someone who will listen and that you don't feel guilty talking to because in your head you know these are "silly" thoughts and you're just taking up someone else's time. That's not the case if you find the right person. Just do what you need to do to stay above water. This will not last forever. I promise. xoxo