I have a few — okay, more than a few — macabre interests that reach back into my childhood. One of them is an intense curiosity about fatal infectious diseases. (I blame early and frequent viewings of Little House on the Prairie, which seemed to have an epidemic threat each season.) I spent some time studying Ebola when it first made headlines as the third-world disease that could become a first-world pandemic; I lived in proximity to New Haven, where Ebola, being studied in a lab at Yale, had been released by a broken test tube. Fortunately, it was immediately contained, but the near and present reality of such an epidemic in my immediate geographic area began a fascination with the disease’s functioning.
Ebola is, for lack of a better description, creepy. The virus seeks to replicate itself via seemingly genius techniques of survivalism. It is a hemorrhagic fever — meaning that, in the final stages of the disease, the infected bleeds out of every orifice, as if the patient had taken an overdose of blood thinners. It then induces grand mal seizures; the bleeding body flails uncontrollably, flinging the blood in a devastating perimeter. It is as if Ebola has an innate form of diabolical intelligence, using the seizure to seek out new hosts in which to settle, grow, and replicate, turning the death of one into the death of multiple others. It is a device that ensures a monstrous form of geometric progression — like that old Faberge Organics shampoo commercial: You’ll infect two friends, and they’ll infect two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Malediction — literally, “evil speech” against another person — has exactly this kind of effect. The Second Commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain also includes a prohibition against cursing. Today we take this to mean literally damning another — as in, “God damn you!” — but this form of cursing was a religious act in the time of the Old Testament, one of calling a curse down on others; it was believed that it would bring harm to the person cursed and, by natural law, to the one invoking it.
There is a way in which we all believe — even us Sacrament-taking, rosary-praying, holy-water-blessing Catholics — that the time of superstition has passed. We believe that the “old ways” were the ways of a different culture and society, which reflected a sort of “immature” mindset that has little effect on us today. We parse our understanding of something like “malediction,” and therefore minimize it; we have a funny way of reducing moral directives to the simplest and easiest rules to follow. In this case, we have reduced the act of “cursing” another to one or two simple statements that we’ll try to refrain from saying.
But, of course, following God’s law is almost always more difficult than it appears; what is less obvious is how common malediction is in everyday life — how casually we do it, without even being aware that we are doing something harmful and wrong. Our private and confidential observations of another can take the form of evil speech against him or her, no matter how justified we may feel in speaking out. We tend to view this sort of act as simply lacking in charity, but putting it in the ancient context of a curse may in fact be instructive.
Let’s say a colleague caused a project of mine at work, one I hold dear, to fall to the wayside. A simple water-cooler comment — “Mary is always looking out for herself” — escapes my lips. But by imputing moral turpitude in Mary, I am, in fact, saying, “Mary is an immoral person; Mary acts against God.” I’m saying that Mary is, or should be, damned.
Interpersonally, at first glance, I’ve merely created a confidence in another in order to soothe my hurt feelings and frustrations. But what I’ve actually done is diminish Mary in the eyes of another to assuage my disappointment and to vent my sense of betrayal; what’s more, I’ve drawn a conclusion about Mary that presumes to know the motivation of her heart. I’ve caused scandal in the true sense of the word: from the Greek skandalon, which means a snare or a trap.
Now the water-cooler colleague — let’s call him Joe — is suspicious of someone he may not have been before, or his own sense of frustration with Mary will be confirmed. Either way, that statement now grows in his mind and won’t rest until it is passed on. It actually begins to hurt the person to whom you’ve unloaded your curse: He feels distrust, or joy at the social diminishment of the other, or — if he feels loyal to your target — an almost insatiable need to relay that gossip to its victim. Any action taken, whether conduct or speech, will bear the burden of the scandal caused by the initial maledictory utterance.
Let’s imagine further that, out of a sense of charity for his colleagues, Joe may feel the need to warn his friends about Mary, repeating to them what you told him. Joe also begins to act coolly toward Mary, which causes Mary confusion and a sense of betrayal; so she confides in a friend that she thinks Joe is “unreliable and untrustworthy.” Remember Faberge? And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on.
And let’s return to me for a moment: I may have felt temporary relief from my water-cooler venting, but eventually, the mistrust I’ve sown among my colleagues will come back to haunt me. I’ll carry the knowledge that I have betrayed Mary every time I encounter her. Mary will feel diminished, the object of other coworkers’ suspicion, even though she may never hear the evil words I’ve spoken against her. I have also caused scandal in Joe. In a very real sense, the environment in which I work is now literally cursed — all because of something I said, carelessly, over the water cooler.
Imagined and real slights live inside the body like a virus that uses our blood to contaminate another. It always infects and causes more disorder, damaged relationships, and pain. This is where those biblical injunctions start to seem like good common sense — an elegant and simple cure. Biblically, the only available option to me was to go to Mary directly and tell her the hurt she caused. Mary might have apologized, or explained her actions — but whatever may have happened, I wouldn’t have passed the infection.