HUNT COLUMN: Feathers on the wind

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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By Cathy Hunt
Troup County School Board member

Sometimes a scene or a speech in a play really cuts to the marrow and stays with you. Such was the case with a mini-sermon that was delivered by a young priest in John Patrick Shanley’s drama “Doubt: A Parable,” which I had the privilege of seeing on Broadway a number of years ago. (It was later made into a movie you may have seen starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams.)

Father Flynn, the priest, who has learned that he is the topic of some speculative talk (that’s putting it nicely), addresses the issue through a sermon on gossip. The story he tells goes something like this:

A woman was spreading a rumor that she’d heard about a man she didn’t even know. Then she had a nightmare in which a giant finger was pointing at her from heaven. When she went to confession, she told the priest that the dream frightened her and wondered if God was telling her that gossiping was a sin. The priest confirmed that she was indeed guilty of bearing false witness against a neighbor (Commandment number nine if you need a reference). She begged for forgiveness, but before the priest would absolve her he directed her to undertake a project and report back to him.

He told her to take a pillow to the roof of her building and rip it open – that was all. She did that and returned to the priest. He asked her what happened next. She said, “Feathers…feathers everywhere, Father!” Then he told her to go back home and gather up all the feathers. She was aghast and protested that it was an impossible task. There was no telling where the wind carried all those feathers in that big city.

“And that,” said the priest, “is gossip!”

That anecdote had a real impact on me. All of us have engaged in gossip from time to time, and I have certainly had to work on self-improvement in that area. I try to shut rumors down when I can (which I can only do if people believe I have insight into a situation that they don’t have), and I have to make an effort to put myself in the subject’s shoes and think about what the other side of the story might be.

From a character education lesson I taught, another take on this topic has also stayed with me. (This quote is attributed to the late American radio host Bernard Meltzer, but there are ancient philosophers who said the same thing in slightly different ways.) “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”

Social media makes it so easy for unfounded rumors to go viral. I cringe when I see someone post something that begins with “I heard.” Well, you may have heard it, and now so has everyone who reads your post, and if they pass it on the hearers grow exponentially. Once you say it, you can’t unsay it. You can try to take it back, but that’s like trying to gather up all those feathers; the word is out and it’s all over the place.

Hardly anyone escapes being the subject of gossip during their lives. Unless you have, you know how hurtful and frustrating it can be, especially when the people tossing your name around have no idea what they’re talking about. And even if a rumor is completely untrue, it plants seeds of doubt and damage that can be difficult to overcome. Keep the feathers contained. A ripped open pillow does no one any good.