THERE'S BEEN a long-standing saying that the articles in each Issue of the Grapevine make up an AA meeting in print. A few days ago, I gave this idea a new twist. I needed a few suggestions for an article about gossip. So I went to my regular closed meeting and waited like a vulture until the moderator made the routine request for a meeting topic.
"How about gossip?" I said. He looked surprised. (Usually, there's no such response to a suggestion.) "I'd like to write an article about gossip, and I'd be interested in what the group has to say on the subject." I took out my note cards and ballpoint pen.
The moderator looked about the table at the twenty-seven persons present. There were no objections, so he shrugged and said, "Well, okay, it's gossip. Since you suggested the topic, why don't you start the discussion?"
Now it was my turn to be surprised. I scrambled for a thought, and then began to explain that indulgence in excessive gossip had been one of my major shortcomings for many years.
The character of the problem changed with sobriety and time. While drinking, I often gossiped in a careless and somewhat vicious manner. In AA, the tendency to talk about others evolved into a more subtle form of gossip. I would preface my comments by explaining that I did not want to take a person's inventory, but was trying only to understand him! I eventually began to realize that this disclaimer was a shameful and shallow device, and I then took some giant steps forward in my conquest of the gossip problem. This produced a pleasant fringe benefit. I noticed that my fear of being gossiped about lessened when I drew away from active participation in gossip.
Having thus informed the group that I was nearing sainthood, I turned the discussion back to the moderator. He nodded to another member, who chewed over the topic for a moment and then explained that he thought there were two kinds of gossip: harmless, idle gossip, and malicious gossip that is intended to hurt somebody.
Now here was an idea we could use. It is true that a lot of the chatter we indulge in is fairly harmless. On the other hand, even gossip of the harmless variety is usually sprinkled with little barbs and insinuations. It is also a waste of time. But I can agree that it's one thing to talk idly about a person, and it's quite another to repeat deadly and vicious things that can result in lasting harm.
The discussion moved to an older member. He surprised me by saying that he didn't think gossip was a proper subject for an AA meeting. He explained that we were at the meeting to learn ways of staying off the sauce, and not to discuss ways of attaining purity of behavior.
With that, the meeting really began heating up. One member disagreed, pointing out that gossip is related to inventory and character shortcomings. It was also noted that the AA program directly focuses on such problems as personal wrongs and harming others. It was asserted that gossip is a character defect related to alcoholism, and the overcoming of it is certainly a requirement for the better life that all of us are seeking. Beyond that, gossip also can be harmful to AA group unity. More than one AA group has been split apart at the seams because members spread vicious stories about one another. Also, individual members have been driven from groups because they were talked about.
Our moderator supported this last statement. He told about a woman alcoholic who also had another problem. She came to AA seeking help for her drinking problem, but soon found herself being rejected and ridiculed because of the other matter. Confused and hurt, she left AA.
Well, was that the real reason she left, or was it only an excuse? We never can answer such a question. But we do have a moral obligation to create a welcoming atmosphere for any alcoholic, including those whose private lives are different from our own. Gossip certainly chills the atmosphere, and perhaps sets up bad vibrations which cause people to dislike certain groups. "I know that I need AA in order to maintain my sobriety," a member said. "But I do not need to be talked about or ridiculed. I found enough of that long before I came to AA."
As the meeting progressed, it became obvious that several members still disapproved of the topic. Somebody pointed out that one lady was attending her first meeting and could very well be confused by the subject. Why didn't we get back to the problem of staying sober?
That ended my first (and probably last) effort to enlist the help of an AA group in the preparation of an article for the Grapevine. But we learn something even from our failures. For some reason, certain subjects don't work well at AA meetings, I have noticed, for example, that few AA groups are able to participate in a mature discussion of sex problems; either it deteriorates into a nervous joke session or the subject is quickly changed. Gossip seems to be another subject difficult to handle. But perhaps I made a mistake in announcing that I wanted to take notes!
Even if it is true that groups have trouble discussing this problem area, any member may treat gossip as his personal problem and use the AA principles as ways of overcoming it. The AA program led me to realize that gossip was morally wrong. I could often tell that there was something wrong in the things I said about other people, because of the guilt and discomfort I later felt. Since gossiping did produce guilt and discomfort, why did I do it?
I believe that gossip was an attempt to build myself up at the expense of others. I have not seen any proof to support this view, but I suspect that a person's love of gossip is inversely proportional to his own self-esteem and sense of security. In other words, the more inadequate I feel, the more I need to belittle others and tear them down.
The same motive also may account for the cruel things that are said about prominent people and others who have been more successful than the rest of us. A great many magazines and books are devoted to vicious criticisms of celebrities and various professional and political groups. I no longer find it useful to read such material, though I once gorged on it. I consider it only tragic that the world reels and staggers from human weaknesses, and there are few faults I could read about that I do not possess myself.
Another of my unproven beliefs is that AA members do not, as a rule, employ vicious and cutting forms of gossip. The worst I have heard, for the most part, are comments such as "He can't get honest with himself" or "He still thinks he's a social drinker" or "He has problems other than alcohol." And I have never heard AAs indulge in real gossip during a meeting without its being challenged. It is probably well understood that this kind of thing is a betrayal of the AA principles. When members talk about other people, they do it after the meetings and usually outside the meeting room.
Before we changed the subject to the direct problems of staying sober, fellow members of my group gave me a couple of additional thoughts. One member said that if we want to find out some things about ourselves, we should listen carefully to what we are saying about other people. (A wonderful thought, and sounds advice. I am quite sure that my juiciest gossip has always been about the traits that cause me the most anxiety within myself, and I will now try to listen more carefully to my own words.)
A lady member offered another rule to follow if we do find it necessary to discuss other members: "When you have told me their names, do not tell me their faults." Or to put it another way, if you discuss a person's faults, do not give away information that will reveal his identity. Better yet, limit your faultfinding to one individual--yourself. This is the only kind of gossip that will ever pay dividends in self-improvement and peace of mind.