Thursday, July 30, 2009

Secrets: are they good, bad or indifferent

top-secretEverybody has stuff they don’t share with others. Much of this stuff is benign like someone’s actual weight or their SAT scores from way back when. These may not be particularly flattering if they would be discovered but most would not significantly change the life of anyone.

Of course there are some practical secrets like surprise parties and Christmas presents which are fun happy stuff to keep secret for a little while at least. How much of the excitement of Christmas morning would be lost if all gifts were known in advance and placed under the tree unwrapped?

There are also secrets though that exact a terrible cost to everyone associated with them in some way. These secrets usually have to do with how a person, family or group is different from its outward appearance. Secrets of this nature, regardless of the specific topic, tend to be toxic to everyone they touch. And this is despite the possibility that the secret may have gotten started because someone believed keeping the secret was for the best.

The project Post Secret started a few years ago demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, in a tangible way just how burdened people are by all the secrets they feel compelled to carry and how much they wish to be relieved of their burden. This desire to have the courage to stop carrying a secret that could potentially change for the worst the life of a person, family or social affiliation is an old one.

Who can forget Hawthorne’s portrayal of the ill-effects his secret would have on the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter? True, Dimmesdale’s secret also carried a lack of confessing his sin, something he should have been well-acquainted with since he preached it to his congregation every Sunday. Of course the argument can be made that many of these types of secrets include an element of confessing, or rather refusing to confess, something.

Then there is Hester Prynne who kept the secret about Dimmesdale. She could not keep her secret from that community; but she could have called him out publicly, or she could have left and joined another community with a different identity where no one would have been the wiser. Yet she stayed and kept the secret. And while the keeping of the secret did not take her physical life it did cost her a decent livelihood, and there were the regular threats to remove Pearl, and the constant barrage of ill will lobbed at her by those who would desire to make themselves look better by comparison.

There is one question that begs for answer although that answer is likely as varied as the persons who have and keep secrets. If the ill-effects of these kinds of secrets is so weighty and in some cases devastating, why do people continue to keep them and therefore continue to bear the consequences? The question is not why do people decide to keep a secret that becomes a toxic burden to bear; the question is why do people whose secret is having an adverse effect on them continue to keep the secret?

I don’t have a singular answer. Like I said above, I think there is a spectrum of answers like the people who have and keep them. I have had a few of my own, and I kept secrets for others, and I have come upon through my genealogy research the devastating effects of secrets that linger across generations in some ill-conceived scheme to protect the memory of those long dead. The consequences of these secrets have affected family unity, civility, personal growth, and denied to far too many any access to forgiveness, amends or absolution. And that is such a pity when these stories come to light because they were not the end of the world; really, none of them were. There would have been consequences to work through, yes; but done appropriately there would in time have been a moving on and forgetting about it to some extent.

This is a very private matter so I am not asking for people to air their dirty laundry in the comments. Although, I suppose you could follow the Post Secret link and do it anonymously on that site. However, if you care to share about how you were able to be excused from keeping a secret you thought you shouldn’t keep or keep any further that might be useful to everyone. Please, no personal details about the secret or the person(s) involved in the secret.

1 comment:

chelle said...

I definitely think there are some things better left unsaid. Especially when exposing it is merely to relieve your own guilt. Better to not do something that you would not want to share!