For generations, people have argued about whether the cup is half-full or half-empty. The optimists have carried their happy grin through their presentations, the pessimists have carried their grim wariness through theirs. And the debate rages on.
There is a third side to the argument, namely: What’s the difference? They both agree on the amount of water in the cup. So is this ageless argument simply a matter of perspective? Is there really no effort to fill the universally recognized empty half of the cup with water?
Perhaps that debate could be a lifesaver instead of a futile debate contest.
This week’s parshah discusses tzaraat, the ancient, spiritual skin malady usually meted out by Heaven to a chronic gossiper and slanderer.
For years, society has debated the value of gossip. Half the world loves it and cannot imagine life without it. Entire gossip industries are supported by that half of humanity. The other half of the world shuns it, decrying it as the worst of the worst societal ills and the fountain of the uncouth.
The unspoken problem is that even if the pious half got their way and the slander society clammed up, all we’d have is a deafening silence. What then? How do we fill the empty half of the cup, that verbal void that deludes people into thinking they need to fill it with something, anything, even words devoid of content or virtue?
To put it in other words: Instead of sending silence to face off against gossip, would we perhaps be better off sending up some sort of constructive speech to compete with the destructive type?
The best way to fight the scourge of mindless gossip is mindful complimenting. The truly ugly thing about those who carelessly throw around hurtful comments about others is that there is always something nice and impressive that could have been said about that same person; why couldn’t they have said that? Why ignore every redeeming factor and choose to focus on the negative? Can’t they find any joy in admiring strengths and virtues?
The fact is that verbalizing a person’s weaknesses — even behind his or her back — brings those weaknesses to the fore, even if they were heretofore latent. But the same — and far more so — is true about verbalizing a person’s virtues. Those virtues emerge into the real world, even if they had only been in a state of potential until now.
Gossip damages people, whether they know about it or not. But silence is not the solution. Silence does nothing for anyone. But speaking well of people fortifies them, with or without their knowledge.
Especially now, as more people than ever have only conversation to occupy themselves with as they ride out this quarantine lifestyle, we need to have the vision to see the positive power in positive talk. Just like quarantining and hand washing are only half the battle, and diet, exercise and a positive outlook are just as essential to healthy living during this crisis, silence is only half the gossip battle; kind words are just as essential.
The next time you feel the urge to indulge in gossip, don’t just hit mute; change your inner channel and kindly, mindfully and sincerely say something nice about the person you were going to talk about. You won’t just avoid hurting them — you could change their life, for good.
Let’s abandon the argument about how to look at the emptiness in a cup and see what we can do to make sure that every cup is full and brimming over with goodness and kindness. PJC
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute – North East Region. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.