In all healthy people there’s a natural reticence about revealing too much of themselves and a concomitant need to keep certain things secret. Too often we judge this as an unhealthy shyness or, worse, as hiding something bad. But reticence and secrecy can be as much virtue as fault because, as the psychologist James Hillman puts it, when we’re healthy we will normally “show the piety of shame before the mystery of life”.
When are secrets healthy and when are they not? When is it healthy to “cast our pearl” before others and when is it not? This is often answered too simplistically on both sides.
No doubt secrets can be dangerous. From Scripture, from spirituality in every tradition, from what’s best in psychology, and, not least, from the various 12-step programmes that today help so many people back to health, we learn that keeping secrets can be dangerous, that what’s dark, obsessive and hidden within us has to be brought to light, confessed, shared with someone and owned in openness or we can never be healthy.
Scripture tells us that the truth will set us free, that we will be healthy only if we confess our sins, and that our dark secrets will fester in us and ultimately corrupt us if we keep them hidden. Alcoholics Anonymous submits that we are as sick as our sickest secret. Psychology tells us that our psychic health depends upon our capacity to share our thoughts, feelings and failings openly with others, and that it’s dangerous to keep things bottled up inside ourselves. That’s right. That’s wise.
There are secrets that are wrongly kept, like the dark secrets we keep when we commit a betrayal or the secrets a young child clutches to as an exercise in power. Such secrets fester in the soul and keep us wrongly apart. What’s hidden must be brought into the light. We should be wary of secrets.
But, as is the case with almost everything else, there’s another side to this, a delicate balance that needs to be struck. Just as it can be bad to keep secrets, we can also be too loose in sharing ourselves. We can lack proper reticence. We can trivialise what’s precious inside us. We can open ourselves in ways that takes away our mystery and makes us inept subjects for romance. We can lose our depth in ways that make it difficult for us to be creative or to pray. We can lack “the piety of shame before the mystery of life”.
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