A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a man who went about town slandering the town's wise man. One day, he went to the wise man's home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should then return to the wise man's house.

Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be let off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers, and returned to the house.

"Am I now forgiven?" he asked.

"Just one more thing," the wise man said. "Go now and gather up all the feathers."

"But that's impossible. The wind has already scattered them."

"Precisely," he answered. "And though you may truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak."

How interesting it is that we, as human beings, so quick to believe the bad that others say about someone, so accepting of the "news" contained in print and television tabloids, and so ready to assume the worst regarding another's actions, actually allow ourselves to believe that the evil we spread about someone won't really matter. Incredible that we can't seem to immediately and resolutely accept the fact that the gossip we speak can--and often does--significant damage to that person.

Bob's friend, Paul Myers, says, "Gossip is like a fired bullet. Once you hear the sound, you can't take it back." That is what the man in the above story found out in a very disappointing, shameful moment of self-discovery. And it isn't just what we say about someone to others, but what we say to that person directly as well. We've all been told that "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me." We also know that is totally untrue. While a body will typically recover from a physical injury, the harm caused by direct insults can sometimes last a lifetime, and tear the self-esteem right out of a person.

On the other hand, kind, encouraging words can build a person's self-esteem, help him or her to grow and give them the impetus they need to do great, significant things with their lives. The choice regarding how we speak about or to someone is ours. It's called "free will."

Toward the end of a speaking engagement in Toronto on the subject of positive speech, a woman I knew raised her hand and asked if she could share a story about something that had happened to her. This is what she said:

"I am Jewish. And although I was not raising my three sons in a particularly observant way, after their teens two of them decided to study in Israel and were becoming quite observant. This alarmed my husband and me, so we traveled there to see what was going on.

"Thankfully, not only did our sons seem happy and fulfilled, but we were very impressed with the staff and administration of the Judaic college they were attending. They took me to some of the classes, including some that explained the laws of speech. After a while my husband and I had had enough of the studies and decided to 'escape' to the resort town of Netanya.

"The first morning there I was lounging by the pool and enjoying the sun. To my left was a woman, also relaxing. To my right were two women who were in engaged in an animated conversation. Since I was right beside them I couldn't help but overhear their discussion. They were talking about someone they knew who had just gotten married. They were saying that his first marriage had ended in a very messy way, but they were not sure of the details.

"Amazingly, by listening to them I realized that I knew who they were talking about! This guy had grown up with my boys in our community back home! What a small world. And not only that. I happened to know all the details of his first marriage and messy divorce. (An in-the-know friend had filled me in.)

I took off my sunglasses and was leaning over with glee, about to tell all, when suddenly a picture of my boys in Jerusalem flashed before me. All those classes on morals and ethics, especially the ones on speech, came swirling through my mind.

"You can imagine that it took all my self-control to put my glasses back on, lie back and not say a word. After awhile they finished their talk, got up and left.

"A few minutes later the woman to my left asked me the time and we started chatting. We played some 'Jewish Geography,' and it seemed we had some common friends back home. Then she told me her name, and I swear to you as I am standing here today, it turned out that this woman was the mother of the man's first wife! The man that those two women on my right side had been talking about!