“If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner. If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot be assiduous, at least in your thought be like a sluggard. If you are not victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.” — St. Isaac the Syrian
I remember once I made a biting and critical remark about a local public figure in a circle of women I did not know– and it bit me back, hard. I was young, maybe 21 or 22, but old enough to know better. Still, I made this disparaging remark about the local celebrity, namely, about her figure and what she wore in a picture I saw in the paper that day. I was making conversation. I thought it was a way into a discussion that felt as though it was drifting further out of my reach. I remember clearly how odd it felt to be at the start of my adult life, navigating the waters of social and professional interactions and how poor a navigator I tended to be.
I’d like to think I outgrew this weird habit of slipping into the cracks of conversation and pressing out at the edges when it’s least appropriate. I admit, I haven’t. I still feel as awkward as ever in new situations, with new people, in strange places. I’m getting better, hopefully, but I keep this memory of that biting remark close. Suffice it to say that I remember making this disparaging remark so well because immediately after I said it, a woman responded, “She’s a close friend of mine.” All the color drained from my face. I was lightheaded and embarrassed. I can picture it even now– her face, her look, the feel of the floor dropping from beneath my feet.
It should not have been so devastating, I suppose. Other people can shrug that sort of thing off, laugh and say something witty to cover, but I could not. I let it drape over me for a long time, keeping me from public outings and gatherings, especially with this group of women. I felt ashamed and perhaps rightly so. I hope I learned something from that. I supposed I did learn something, maybe that is why the shame still feels as clear as it did in that moment. It was not until years later that I understood what I learned that day, something far deeper than simply, “don’t gossip because it’s not nice.” I discovered through trial and error that I am, at my best, an empath.
Others can summon their inner Captain Picard but I am Counselor Troi, all the way. To say terrible things about other people, as I did in that moment runs counter to my best self. And in those moments when I slip up (and there are many moments like this) I know it’s true. It’s like a silent alarm goes off in my body, my heart, my brain, when I say or do something that runs counter to my best self. I ought to know better, I ought to do better.
And this is where the redemption part of my faith is most important, that remembrance that I am forgiven, that I am loved and valuable, even in my falling. Because without that assurance, I’m not sure where I’d go next with that shame once its purpose is served. I’m afraid, given an absence of confession, an absence of reconciliation and care, I might begin to believe that the best version of myself is impossible, or worse, non-existent. In those tender moments between the words leaving my lips, the floor falling beneath my feet, I remind myself of these kind words from Thomas Merton–
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
My best self knows that to tear down other people, even or especially people I don’t even know, tears me down with it. This tearing and biting leaves me bleeding, whether I’m called out by someone else in the room or not. When I’m alone or go uncaught, the injury hides in the folds of my skin. It hurts, though I might not even notice the gash. And I want to be free of that pain. I want to be better. I want to do better. That memory of those few biting words long ago that bit me back, hard, reminds me of this. With time, forgiveness and a lot of practice, I hope one day I will catch those biting words before they leave my lips. I recognize now that this is an act of love– speaking well of others, seeing them as worthy. And I recognize now this act of love then renders me worthy. Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy.