In a 1999 interview, Kathleen Norris introduced CT readers to the term “holy gossip,” which she defined as “things I need to know to be a member of the community.” Specifically writing to church communities, the best-selling author celebrated a sort of prying into others’ personal lives that we do in search of ways to offer help and support.

The word gossip, Norris pointed out, is an etymological cousin of godparent. In fact, for centuries, that was its primary meaning in the English language. Even as the term gradually came to refer to certain kinds of information sharing, it was still rooted in ideas of relational intimacy. People within our inner circles are probably more trustworthy stewards of personal details than people without. We tend to make exceptions to this rule—sharing much of ourselves with doctors, lawyers, and counselors, for instance—only when we believe someone’s professional incentives for guarding our secrets compensate for their relational distance from us.

Yet Norris highlighted something important that we have lost in urbanized Western society. There is nothing inherently bad when some parts of our private selves go public. To the contrary, being known is essential to human love and thriving. But our long project to construct autonomous, walled-off lives has left many of us with terribly poor instincts for how to be known. We’re prone to view acquaintances who have special knowledge about us as creepy, even offensive. We swing between bizarre extremes, opting for complete opaqueness in the real world and calculated over-sharing in the online world.

There are still communal cultures—and small towns and sprawling extended families—far less ...

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