I have a confession to make: I’m always a little shocked when I hear rumours about myself.

It’s not that there aren’t reasons for rumours to circulate about me, because there are. Most of them are crap, and those don’t bother me much. But others involve some aspect of my past or my personal life, and that another person has labeled me a “bad person” or someone not worth knowing because of a mistake I’ve made in my life, or a way of life I used to embrace.

Last night, after the book release party, I was sitting around with a group of friends, and the topic of mean people we used to know came up. One of them is someone who would almost compulsively tell lies and spread rumours, always commenting on the lives of others, in addition to making up extraordinary claims about his own that clearly were not true. After laughingly telling some friends what this person had been saying about them (ridiculous speculation that wasn’t true, and would be none of this guy’s business, even if it was), a friend of mine told me what this guy had said about me.

At first, he was too embarrassed to even relate the gossip. When he did, I was absolutely shocked. The long and short of the gossip was “Stay away from Alayna, because she’s bad news.”. Some of the reasons he gave were absolutely true, some were ridiculously false, and others were assumptions that might make sense if you’re trying to piece together a mystery, but actually not what happened in the story of my life.

The surprising part was not that this ex-acquaintance was into gossip and rumours and lies, or that I should somehow be exempt from that when nobody else was, but that there were enough elements of truth in there that someone might actually believe the gossip. It also shocked me to realise the friend who heard the gossip had just kept it to himself, perhaps for a year or two or three.

It shocks me how utterly non-confrontational people are. For instance, if I hear a rumour that years ago, someone I think of as a good friend was a drug dealer, hung out with a rough crowd, and got arrested, I’m probably going to ask my friend about it. (no, that’s not the rumour I heard about me. :P ) I’m not just going to speculate, try to find information on Google, or run a background check on them. I’m also not going to suddenly stop talking to them, stop inviting them to things, or tell all my friends about this story behind the person’s back.

If it turns out the rumours are all true, I’m also not going to give a shit. I realise that people have past histories, have made mistakes, have all traveled a rough road in life, and not everything is fodder for public consumption. Some things, you only tell your very best friends. Some things, you don’t *even* tell your best friends.

I don’t judge people based on their past choices, nor on their future paths and how that might be incompatible with my own. If I care about someone, it’s based on who they are now, the ways that knowing that person makes my life better, and simple love, respect, friendship, and admiration. I do not assume that because someone behaved a certain way at one point in life, he or she is at the same stage of life. I also don’t dismiss people, whether in close friendships or romantic relationships, because our futures aren’t “heading in the same direction” or because someone “isn’t the right kind of person for me”. You just never know what the future will hold, and while you can’t ever erase the past, you can learn and grow from it.

What I’ve learned is that people are really hung up on the idea of the past, as well as preconceptions of the future, in such a way that it leads to missing out on people and experiences in the present. Every time you’d rather judge and gossip and think yourself somehow superior to another person because of something they’ve done in life, a choice they’ve made, a tough experience they’ve survived, or even a rumour you’ve heard, you’re missing out on knowing someone who might teach you about the world, open your eyes to a new perspective. Every time you turn down the opportunity to let someone new into your life because you ultimately want different things, are at different places in your lives, have very different personalities or goals or ambitions, or simply because you’re afraid that person won’t be there at some point in life or will affect you in a way that leaves you hurt and vulnerable, you’re potentially missing out on a soulmate, or an experience that will significantly touch your life.

Life isn’t static, and people are always changing and evolving. Yes, sometimes people don’t learn from their life experiences, and they are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes people are selfish and don’t mature, don’t evolve, don’t find a higher level of meaning in life and connection in relationships. I’d like to think most people do…and the person you judge today may just be the person who will teach you the most about yourself. The person you dismiss as never being the kind of person that would fit into your future life plan may actually be the one to lead you to your true future life plan. Everything is constantly changing, and the only thing you can really know about another person is who they are, how they affect you, how you feel about them, and what they bring to your life today. Even the most harshly judgmental of people can’t claim to be affected by what another person did before ever even meeting that person. Even the most intuitive of people can’t claim to know how someone is destined to fit into any sort of future life path in six months, or a year, or five. Most people aren’t who they were a decade ago, and will not be the same person a decade from now.

Perhaps what a person makes you feel now is negative, and it’s not rooted in any sense of judgment about the past or assumptions about the future. That’s perfectly valid. People aren’t meant to like every person they encounter, and even the most open-minded people aren’t designed to tolerate every person they encounter. However, I firmly believe that unless someone has wronged you personally, spreading rumours and digging up dirt and whispering about someone, is uncalled for. Even when someone has wronged you, doing this rarely accomplishes much—even though we all do it. In my experience, it doesn’t make you feel any less hurt or angry about the situation, and you may just get a taste of your own medicine where Karma is involved.

Sometimes, the best thing to do with rumours is to put them out on the table, to confront the person you’ve heard something about and ask them what the story is. As in the situation last night, where we all sat and admitted to the rumours we’d heard about one another via this one person, we found out that people we’ve been friends with for years had never found it appropriate to bring up “Oh, I heard something negative about you”. Here in Atlanta, confronting someone about a rumour or a disagreement is seen as aggressive and not the way someone should behave, giving people even more reason to talk. However, telling others a rumour or discussing why you don’t like someone else, while refusing to talk to that person or acknowledge them in public beyond frosty civility, is perfectly normal. Perhaps people think that if everyone just confronted everyone else about gossip, rumour, and “why I don’t like you”, it would turn into Jerry Springer or an episode of the Real Housewives Of Whatever.

In my personal experience, this rarely happens. It is possible to learn from people and understand people, even people you don’t like—or somehow *think* you don’t like. It is possible that the person who seems so opposite of you and has traveled a much different road in life isn’t all that different. Yet, you only discover this when you truly get to know people, when you let go of the judgment attached to what you know of someone’s past, or how you see someone’s future.

Gossip and rumour and exaggerated stories will never die. It’s human nature for people to talk about one another. However, it is almost always true that every story you hear consists of “What Person A said, what Person B said, and a truth that lies somewhere in the middle.” It’s also human nature to judge someone as being “too different to be friends” or “not the type of person I’m looking for in my life” before ever really knowing that person.

What I’ve learned over the past year, what the world seems for me to want to learn, is how much of a disservice that does, not only to another person, but to yourself. I’ve made some really valuable friendships in 2012 with people I wouldn’t have seen myself wanting to connect with, even a year ago. At the same time, I’ve seen people I thought were friends for quite some time drift out of my life, as if we never really knew one another. I’ve learned that the person who just “isn’t my type” not only might be, but is more like me than expected. I’ve learned that the person I judge at face value as representing a lifestyle or set of values I don’t share might not only become one of my favourite people with whom to spend time, but someone I easily understand and relate to. I’ve learned the value of one-on-one conversation, and what “real” friendship means. I’ve learned that some people aren’t going to just walk away, even if they’re the type that’s wired to do so, simply because they care about you. I’ve also learned that people aren’t going to take down walls and let you into their lives just because you have fun going out and being social. You really have to invest time and effort into other people, if you want the favour returned. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out for the best, and that hurts. But more often than not, it’s an investment that more than improves your life.

I’ve also learned that old rumours never die, and the past doesn’t disappear. Sometimes, I think I’d have an easier time of it if I didn’t live in a city that functions like a small town, where everyone seems to be connected to everyone else, somehow, and talking about others is a social pastime. However, I also know that if you have a social circle anywhere, even in the biggest cities, you’ll still run into people you’d rather forget you once knew—and those people aren’t always going to be kind or forgiving or shy about sharing everything negative they know about you (while often omitting the positive.) Sometimes, those people will be. A friend reminded me recently that there were two options when people can’t seem to get over gossiping about you or judging you or speculating about you: you can either feel hurt and humiliated and hide yourself away because you can’t cope with the idea that others just don’t like you, or you can own everything about you, and continue to put yourself out there–which is often why people don’t like you in the first place.

It’s difficult, but I choose the second. I’ve never been one to disappear and back down. Yet, for someone as sensitive as I am, the things I hear are hurtful, the things others have said are brutal. It’s not high school, it’s real life, and it may be something I have to cope with throughout my life, and I do really hope I’m strong enough to live in a world where there are people who dislike me, sometimes to the point where they *want* to see me hurt and make me feel unwelcome. If someone confronts me about a rumour, I tell the truth, and if someone cares to judge me for the truth, I have to put that back on them. If someone decides I’m not the sort of person they’d like to spend time with, I have to respect that, even if it hurts.

All that being said, I could never be a celebrity. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have people talking about you and judging you incessantly. What I have learned is that the comments regarding the truth hit harder than the comments about things that are blatantly false, and passive-aggressiveness really gets under my skin. I’ve also come to realise that apparently, everyone talks about everyone else, and that’s just part of how the world works. Yet, it never fails to shock me when what I hear is about me.