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Lessons from Careers Long Dead

Sometimes, you can’t help wondering about people. They gossip, go into backbiting fits, engage in the sport of backstabbing – and then still have the gall to put on a sweet, smiling face.

But who am I to talk? I used to gossip a lot about colleagues. I used to talk about them behind their backs. When they riled me up, I decided that it was time for a round of backstabbing so that I could put them in their place. And yes, I smiled, put on the halo, wore the wings, and hid the pitchfork in the closet.

But something happened. See, a few years ago, I realized something strange: every time I put someone down, I felt drained of energy and creativity. Every time I talked about how lousy a writer was, I didn’t do too well in the next few paragraphs myself. Every time I talked about how lousy someone’s research was, I found a few more glaring mistakes in my own. Every time I talked about how awful another dancer’s number was, I also stumbled on my own weaknesses.

Mind you, it wasn’t anything supernatural. I wasn’t getting hit with karma as much as I was forced to examine my own shortcomings. In closely scrutinizing other people’s work, I was forced to criticize my own.

And then, I realized: I don’t know this artist, or this scientist, or this sociologist, or this writer, or this professional. I’m on the outside looking in, and I don’t have the complete story. And guess what? I’m silly too. I’m stupid, too. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t answer all the questions. I’m not as intelligent or as smart or as graceful or as strong or as impressive as I think.

That’s not to say that I don’t gossip or backstab or backbite. I still fall into the trap sometimes, but I realize it faster. I start climbing out of the holes I’ve dug, and then choose to write or talk or closely examine something else. Like football, or racism, or even movies.

But it still makes me wonder, you see, why some people insist on spewing venom and ripping reputations apart. See, something else happened, this time around three years ago. I found out that the most skillful, most successful belly dancers were also the most humble. They always had good things to say about everyone, and if they did find something to criticize, they always had something to back up their claim. It was a lot like research, only fun and often sparkly.

At their worst, a conversation would sound like this:

Skilled Belly Dancer: I love her dancing! She’s so graceful and she looks like she’s having so much fun!
Me: But her technique is just really – off.
Skilled Belly Dancer: Well, that’s true. Her obliques are a little short, so her hip drops might look less defined. That can be fixed with practice. But see, it takes years to get to that level where you look like everything is just fun onstage and you and the music are one.

And I thought that such conversations were supposed to sound like this:

Supposedly Skilled Belly Dancer: She’s ugly! Her costume is awful! Her technique is bad!
Me: I know!
Supposedly Skilled Belly Dancer: And her shimmies? Ugly! She calls herself an artist? Ugh!
Me: I know!
Supposedly Skilled Belly Dancer: Why do people even watch her? Why do they even like her? Why does she even get gigs? Why don’t we get gigs?
Me: I know!

In a moment of furor and horror, I know I can’t answer the last question. But now that I am calm, I think the question should be phrased differently.

Why don’t you get gigs from nice, decent people who pass your name on to more nice, decent people?

Because nice, decent people don’t rip reputations apart. Because nice, decent people count their blessings and see the good in others. Because nice, decent people give criticism with a basis, and don’t sugarcoat, lie, or gossip.

Because nice, decent people talk about ideas. They don’t talk about people.

It was a hard lesson to learn. In listening to the most skilled, most wise belly dancers, I found that anyone who stepped on people on the way to the top also had a much longer way to fall. In working with experienced artists, I found that I had to work on my own faults as hard and as diligently as I could; and if I had to speak up against other dancers, I had to have a basis for doing so. In walking amongst these grandmothers and godmothers of a dance of generations upon generations of women, I found that those who gossiped, or sneered, or started fights were eventually ostracized.

Anyone who truly loved the dance didn’t gossip or backbite. Their careers died a natural death. Sometimes it took months for them to disappear from the limelight. At other times, it took years; but it was a long, painful process of learning that they were universally despised, and sought after only by those who did not truly understand what belly dancing was about.

But see, this is a lesson that applies everywhere. Anyone who gossips, backbites, or is outright nasty and judgemental doesn’t walk the road of success. And even if that someone does, it’s a long, lonely road filled with robbers and thieves – people who share the same spirit, people who are as black with hatred and self-righteousness as the one who claims to be better or more skilled than everybody else.

And that is why I wonder why some people still think that it’s acceptable to create fights out of nothing, to spread gossip, to engage in deceit. I wonder why karma hasn’t caught up yet.

Then again, the long time waiting could give me enough time to whip up a giant batch of popcorn…so that I can munch on something while I watch karma do its work.

In the meantime, I’m going to go work on my writing and my obliques. Lord knows how much practice I still need.

Published inDiary