One day, when I was quite young, I was upstairs playing in my room when I heard my mother’s car drive off. She was heading out on a shopping trip. I ran downstairs and shouted out for her to Wait up! but she was already gone.
I burst into tears.
My father heard me wailing and came downstairs, but no matter what he said or what he did, he could not console me. I stood at the door and cried and cried and cried. It is one of my earliest memories, and the first time I recall feeling such utter anguish. Not because I’d been left behind.
Because I couldn’t tell him what was wrong.
It was mid-April, coming up on my father’s birthday. On this particular shopping trip, my mother was going to buy him a present. I’d planned to go with her to help pick it out. (I later learned that she had no idea I’d been planning to come along.) And now here we were: sitting together in a puddle of my misery, my father trying to make it better, me not able to tell him what the tragedy was about.
Of course, I could have told him, and he would have told me everything was okay, and it would have been. But in my toddler mind, all I knew was that birthdays were a secret, and if I said anything it would spoil the surprise.
I imagine that up until that moment, everything about my world had been completely transparent. Now, all at once, it wasn’t. Whether or not it was my first experience of anguish, I can’t say for sure (babies feel plenty of anguish from time to time). But I do know this for certain: It was my first experience of feeling something and thinking that I couldn’t tell anyone what it was.
My first experience, in other words, of feeling utterly alone, imprisoned by a secret.
Secrets can do that to you — make you feel like a solitary castaway, isolated in a strange and dark world that doesn’t even know you’re there, or if it does, that doesn’t care. It’s frightening out there, all by yourself.
Mind you, it’s not that secrets are inherently isolating or damaging. Not at all. Sometimes they’re necessary, even vital. Passwords aren’t the only personal information it makes sense not to share with the world at large. We wrap our thoughts, opinions, and inner dialogue inside a skin of discretion for the same reason we hold our blood and viscera inside: so the whole mess doesn’t spill out over everyone.
What’s more, secrets can sometimes be great fun. One year, I managed to plan a surprise birthday party for my wife, Ana, even covertly flying in two of her friends from other parts of the country and sequestering them in a local hotel, without her knowing about any of it until the moment she walked in the door of the restaurant where they were already sitting at our table. I still have no idea how I managed to pull that off, but man oh man, it was worth it.
And you can’t have a surprise without it being first wrapped in a secret.
The world is always springing surprises on me — and on you too, no doubt — and where would be the fun if we knew about it all ahead of time?
So no, it’s not that having secrets is terrible. It’s that life can feel so terribly lonely when you think you have to hide who you are.
And it is so wonderfully delicious when you don’t.
One of my greatest joys in my marriage with Ana has been the discovery that when I share with her things about myself I consider deficits — weaknesses, doubts, the things I’ve done that I’m not proud of — it makes her love me more, not less. It’s an amazing thing, having a person in my life from whom I have no secrets whatsoever, someone who knows me, in some ways, better than I know myself. The less I hide, the better it gets.
And I don’t think that’s true only in marriages
I was once given, by a well-meaning editor, a piece of public speaking advice that struck me as so awful, so wrong-headed, that it rattled around in my head for years until eventually finding its way out and onto the pages of The Go-Giver Leader:
“Years ago,” said Aunt Elle, “when I was in a position where I was often called upon to speak before large audiences, my father gave me some advice. ‘Elle,’ he said, ‘never let ’em see you sweat. If people sense you’re not in control, they’ll eat you for lunch. When you get up there to give your talk, it’s all right to be nervous—just don’t let it show.’” Aunt Elle let out a brief, dismissive snort. “Usually my father’s advice was brilliant. In this instance, it was abysmal.”
After doing her best to follow her father’s abysmal advice, giving a terrible talk and feeling awful about it for days afterward, Aunt Elle explains, she then took a different tack:
“I vowed never again to pretend to be someone I was not. And that was a vow I kept. The next time I spoke before a group, my nervousness was even greater—and I told them so. ‘I just want you all to know, I am petrified’ was my opening line. ‘I hope you enjoy the next forty-five minutes. Myself, I’ll be closing my eyes—let me know when it’s over.’ Everyone in the hall laughed. And you know, I could feel the audience rooting for me, reaching out to help me feel at ease. Instead of being merely the audience, they became my partners.”
People want to be seen and heard, to be known, for who they are.
It’s interesting to note how many crimes are solved solely because the perpetrator, who up to that point has completely gotten away with it in total secrecy, feels compelled to tell someone else: a girlfriend, a drinking buddy, a cellmate.
Perhaps we’re all like that. Our lives are something we could completely get away with in total secrecy, only we feel compelled to tell someone else.
And how much sweeter is that life, when we do.