The average person has thirteen secrets, at least according to a podcast I listened to this week. We all have secrets, some of them bigger than others, and we have them for various reasons. Usually keeping something secret is done for protection, either of a loved one or to protect ourselves.
Toddlers can’t keep secrets. They are seriously bad at it. Until they develop the capacity to understand that other people have their own thoughts and ideas (theory of mind), they just blurt out the “truth.” When my oldest was around four or five years old, I was buying a Christmas present for his dad, and my son happened to be with me. I told him,”You can’t tell dad what I bought because it’s a giant secret.” My husband was laughing to himself later that night and asked me what I had told our son. As soon as he saw him, my son blurted out, “Mom bought you a giant SEA FROG!” which was frankly more exciting and memorable than any Christmas present I ever bought anyone.
The first type of personal secret very young children learn to tell is a secret to avoid getting in trouble, to protect themselves. Their first attempts at keeping these types of secrets are often fantastical because they don’t yet realize that white lies must be plausible in order to avoid detection. It doesn’t take long before they get better at lying. We can all think of many of these childish lies. Once when the kids’ bathroom mirror was smeared all over with wet handprints from top to bottom, I demanded to know who made such a mess, intending to make the perpetrator do the clean up. “Uhm, I think it was the legend tigers,” proferred my second child. As we found over the next two years, the legend tigers were ever-present and quite mischevious. Apparently they had human-looking hands. Another time, “someone” cut little triangles out of their cousin’s shirt with some scissors. When pressed, they explained, “I think I dreamt that.” Last time dreams worked that way, Freddie Krueger was stalking Johnny Depp and his girlfriend on Elm St.
With the rise of social media, people have many low-risk avenues for sharing their private feelings, their secret ambitions, their embarrassments, their flaws, even for confessing their crimes, sins and betrayals, without having to deal with direct consequences from loved ones who might view them differently as a result. This is a valuable resource psychologically, but it doesn’t necessarily increase our intimacy and authenticity in our real life interactions. In fact, venting our secrets in a strictly online environment, particularly if it’s anonymous, can delay the need to spill the tea in our real lives. But there are benefits to letting go of our secrets.
One of the biggest benefits is the potential for increased intimacy, but this only comes when we are truly vulnerable. Unless we open up the possibility of being rejected, we know that our partner or friend hasn’t fully “chosen” us, not the “whole” person we are, flaws and all. Psychologists are often asked by a partner who has committed adultery whether they should come clean to their romantic partner, the person they cheated on. The current consensus (if there is such a thing in psychology) is that sharing this information is only valuable if it’s for the partner’s benefit, not to relieve one’s own guilt. For example, if you share this type of information, you are giving your partner agency, and you are respecting their right to choose (not) you by showing more of yourself. But that also means that they might reject you, leave you, use this information against you, or be miserable. Given the possible outcomes, it’s easy to see why people justify keeping secrets.
This is similar to how companies and organizations may justify keeping unsavory aspects of their product “secret.” Secrets can be kept through outright lies, misdirection, or simply avoiding the topic. I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately, and at the end of her books, she often explains why the amateurs around her failed to detect the true criminal, and what they did right or wrong in the process, sort of a procedural explanation for how to detect the truth from the falsehoods and reveal the ultimate secret (whodunit?). Here are a few of the methods from some of her novels:
- Be skeptical whenever you only have one source for a story. You want two or more sources (but beware of conspirators backing each other!). A story can’t be taken as a fact.
- Pay attention to the people nobody pays attention to: the quiet ones, the foreigner, the outsider, the servant class, the women, the children.
- Listen to your subconscious. It often picks up on clues you haven’t yet figured out are meaningful.
- Watch out for the “good man” syndrome. When someone looks too good, there’s reputation management at play (which is hiding a secret). Nobody’s perfect.
- Whenever there’s a big distraction, it might be hiding the real crime. Sometimes when there’s smoke, there’s fire, and sometimes smoke is a smokescreen.
Several years ago, I was among a group of women at a Relief Society social, and one of the sisters was making a comment about some unsavory bit of information about the Church. She said it was ridiculous, and that there were people saying the Church had hid this fact which the Church would never do. I pointed out that she was incorrect, that this was actually a true fact, and that the Church didn’t really have a good use for this fact because it didn’t make them look good, so yes, they didn’t go around advertising it. (Boy, I sure don’t remember what it was after all this time). Another sister who was there agreed vehemently with me, also pointing out that people from older generations were big on secrets, something I also noted. They don’t call them the silent generation because they are big blabs! She shared an example of a family secret that she only had accidentally discovered as an adult, that her grandfather had basically fathered a second secret family (through an affair, not polygamy). The prevalence of DNA self-testing kits has brought a lot of family secrets kicking and screaming out of the closet and into the open.
When you make a choice to keep something a secret, even if it’s ostensibly to “protect” another person from a truth you think they can’t handle, you are creating a scenario in which the relationship is more distant, more superficial. But maybe that’s what the relationship will bear. I recently found out some secrets various friends have held, things that happened long in the past, but that they didn’t share with me at that time. Decades later, it feels safer to them, perhaps because through the test of time, the friendship has remained. Perhaps both parties are more mature now. Perhaps the secrets have faded in importance. Sometimes our secrets seem so very important to keep, but they really aren’t. It’s really just the insecurities we’ve built up around them. We think we are protecting someone else, but we are really protecting ourselves. But when we do this, secretly we know we are a fraud. We are only accepted because they don’t know, or so we think. We don’t trust them with our true selves.
- Have you ever held a secret to your own detriment?
- Do you find it troubling when the Church keeps certain things “secret”? Did the Church essays show that revealing those secrets (albeit in a very downplayed way) was not worth the risk?
- Does the secret itself matter, or is it the ways it was kept from you (e.g. lies, misdirection, avoidance) that matter more?
- Has someone close to you shared a secret later in life that made you feel closer or had the opposite effect? Why?
- Have you shared your secrets online? Was it anonymous? Do you think this trend is a good or bad thing?
To answer Hawk Girl’s question directly: it is clear that the use of social media to engage in secret behavior is a terrible thing for society.
Sadly, Facebook and Instagram have increasingly become secret avenues for large numbers of people to engage in illicit affairs. Before, these people would have to write letters or call landlines, which made it hard to keep these sort of secrets for long. Now, social media messaging allows these people to set up liaisons in secrecy.
When it comes to general moral behavior, secrecy is not a good thing. If an association with another human being cannot be out in the open, that is a sign that it shouldn’t be happening at all.
I love to travel with my grandkids (sometimes with parents). At the beginning of trip, I always tell my grandkids, whatever happens on this trip, stays where it happens. Everyone is always in total agreement. Except when when they get home, they almost always spill the beans. Which obviously is fine; my kids know how I travel. But it does say something about secrets.
But it seems like there is a middle ground between keeping secrets and writing a tell-all book. Discretion is the better part of valor.
What constitutes a secret? The broadest possible definition – a secret is anything that I intentionally don’t tell someone – would mean that I must have hundreds of them. I don’t tell my kids what I think of some of their friends, I don’t tell my coworkers what I think of their politics, I haven’t told anyone about a long-term surprise I’m looking at for my wife. And if pressed about any of these things, I would do my best not to answer any questions, and depending on the situation may outright lie. I think Hollywood has well documented what could happen in a hypothetical world where someone always said what was on their mind at all times.
The salient issue here is that truths we do or don’t tell can delineate what sort of relationship we can have with others. By avoiding politics with my coworkers, I increase the chances that I can maintain a pleasant and productive relationship, but diminish my opportunities to develop a fuller, deeper and more trusting one. That’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept; the cost of a bad outcome (tense relationship -> work sucks or find a new job) outweighs the benefit of a good outcome (more close friends). With my kids, I am trying to develop a relationship with them as budding adults (they are teens), which sometimes means treading carefully. They are (hopefully) slowly learning to be adults, and I am certainly struggling to learn how to adapt to a relationship where they make more of their own decisions. I endeavor to find a balance between building that relationship, while maintaining my own dignity and avoiding (what I perceive to be) bad outcomes in their life. When it comes to my wife, we’ve known each other for decades and have a high level of trust, so I can be open with her about nearly everything with minimal fear of rejection and judgement. Maybe if/when my coworkers or kids make it a few decades further into our relationship perhaps I’ll be less secretive with them, too.
I don’t see the church as being all that different. It is still a relationship, though between an institution and an individual. As an institution, it asks for me to not keep secrets. Do I drink coffee? Do I pay a full tithe? Do I obey the law of chastity? etc. If the institution wants to have a secret-less relationship with me, it needs to go both ways. (Where do my tithes go? How do church policies get made? Why do we need 10 hours of conference?)
One secret I hold from my wife is how much I think about walking away from the church. I’ve shared it here several times. Oh she knows where my head is at but until I’m closer to a decision I don’t bring up every little annoyance I hear in the spirit of marital harmony.
Similar to what others have said im not sure what the difference is between a lie and a secret. Maybe it’s the rule of thumb Hawkgrrrl states in the OP – is there a reason to share and does it hurt the other person. I remember another post in which Hawkgrrl (I can never remember how many r’s) said that bishop interviews may serve a useful function of teaching kids that in fact it’s ok to lie sometimes. Or something along those lines.
If I’ve had an affair (which I haven’t) my wife would probably want to know, but my mother has said that if my dad were to have an affair she wouldn’t want to know. Ignorance can indeed be bliss and my parents are too old to build a different life apart from one another. My wife on the other hand could find another, more trustworthy man to spend the second half of her life with. I suppose the circumstances matter.
I suspect Q15 leaders use a similar calculus: if I share this dirty little secret that happened 150 years ago, what’s the point? It would only hurt peoples salvation. I do think that lying for the Lord / keeping secrets is done out of good intentions for us little people. What I think is forgotten is that unattainably high standards the church has set for itself. On the other hand, for me, my wife knows my true self (almost entirely) and some low standards may work in my favor.
I really think of leaders were to say we were wrong to keep this a secret and we were boneheads, the focus of Wheat and Tares would be very different.
“Do you find it troubling when the church keeps certain things secret?”
Yes. There are many things the church has tried to hide, but a simple example is the second anointing. And not just that it was hidden – because I don’t really care anymore – but the condescending tone the church takes with people who want to know. I read something like, We trust that no faithful Latter-day saint will inquire about this ordinance. Plus the fact that lesson manuals frantically instruct teachers not to discuss it in class.
I understand that we live in a world where full transparency of government, companies and churches is not wise. There is some information that needs to be kept among the leaders of the respective institutions. However, I think some leaders use this as an excuse to keep too many secrets. I prefer the share-everything-unless-you-can-find-a-compelling-reason-not-to approach.
Toad: “I do think that lying for the Lord / keeping secrets is done out of good intentions for us little people” I think this is the exact issue, and that every person and/or organization struggles with the allure of this type of justification. We believe that our intentions are good and noble, but that’s because the nobility of these motivations relies on a self-serving interpretation or worldview. For example, mentally jumping over to Dave’s post from yesterday, there are doubtless many Republican legislators who believe that even if they bend rules, obfuscate about their intentions, or change laws to stay in power, it’s all worth it in the long run because in their minds the country, we the (little) people *need* their leadership. We will be worse off if they aren’t in charge. They are saving the voters from ourselves. Of course, every politician is prone to this type of belief if they believe in what they are doing or in their own priorities. Even DJT, whom many see as totally insincere in his political views, may in fact feel that conservative policies will benefit him as a business owner, and that he’s the one making the economy run, not the workers, so therefore, what’s good for him is good for others, even if they don’t see it that way. Therefore, it’s OK to lie and cheat to stay in power. That’s better than the alternative (in that worldview).
The Church has an even greater incentive to believe that hiding secrets is justified because of the goal of salvation and exaltation. “Will there be polygamy in the eternities?” Best to dodge that one to save souls (and future wives) the angst of human (mis)understanding, the poor hysterical dears. “They can’t handle the truth.” Or with the case of unsavory history, there’s doubtless a justification of “It’s not my secret to tell. We can’t judge the past, so the little people will misunderstand and might lose their salvation. We’d better protect them from their own inability to understand things beyond their comprehension.” Protectionism feels noble, but it’s also the cop out. It makes you feel good and superior for keeping others in ignorance. It’s much, much harder to grapple with the complex and difficult things and to persuade others rather than to blame them for their curiosity, skepticism and lack of trust (when people are in fact being untrustworthy).
Angela, your followup about keeping secrets with good intentions is thought-provoking. In a relationship, for example, someone might keep a secret “because I didn’t want to upset you.” Well, that’s manipulative and condescending. The secret-keeper ought to admit that they wanted to avoid having a difficult conversation. When it’s something that you *ought* to tell someone, withholding the info because you don’t want to make someone uncomfortable is paternalistic.
In a relationship, honesty is a sign of trust. Lying can sometimes be manipulative, but it can also be a lack of trust. I remember being puzzled by the story of George Washington and the cherry tree when I was a child. (yes, I know it’s apocryphal) The story was that George chopped down a cherry tree, and when his father asked what happened, he famously answered, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped it down.” Then his father was proud of him for telling the truth. The moral of the story was that we should tell the truth to our parents. I was mystified. My siblings and I lied to our dad all the time. After months of thinking about it, I realized the difference wasn’t that I was an evil little liar. Our fathers were different sorts of people. George didn’t worry that his dad would beat him, or make his mother cry, if he told the truth. I lied because I didn’t trust my father. And I was right to lie to him – it protected me. He wasn’t trustworthy and his reactions were not something that a little kid could deal with.
My spouse lied about her very sexual past in order to marry me, believing that if she disclosed I would reject her as chewed gum. The result was over a decade of strained sexual and emotional intimacy that nearly destroyed our marriage. The truth and initial hints of healing only came to light after we had ran the gauntlet of discovering the secrets that Mormonism kept from us and ultimately leaving the faith together because of it. Nothing like a faith crisis to put a relationship to the ultimate test and strengthen the trust to the point she felt safe enough to disclose her hidden sexual secrets and lies. The truth about her past nearly broke me like my loss of my faith nearly broke her. We both carry scars and have been in couples therapy to help bridge the gaps that we are unequipped to handle alone. I still wake up at nights trying to make sense of how the lie and secrecy could impact our relationship so negatively for so long and not be able to recognize that the lack of intimacy was not 100% my fault for some unknown reason. And I want this lost years that church indoctrination secrecy and lies stole from me. Word of caution to those that might be hiding their sexual past, if your relationship is anything like mine was, the love, trust, and sexual connection on the other side is so much more fulfilling and worth the risk of blowing everything up by disclosing then I could have imagined. Good luck.
A secret is nothing more than a piece of information about an act you did or thought you hold that if made known to a particular friend, colleague, or family member could cause them to react negatively and lose respect for you and this deteriorate the relationship.
Some things are best left untold.
Sometimes people overreact and it isn’t so much the fault of the secret-holder as it is the person overreacting.
All large organizations have a right to withhold some information from the public. Of course, there are pieces of information that they are required by law to share.
I’ve never explained the church as “keeping secrets” per se. They whitewash and downplay, sure. They are not terribly transparent, but not in an illegal sense. They pose implausible explanations, too. But I don’t blame the church for “keeping secrets,” just giving bad explanations. And here I differ from much of the ex-Mormon community, many of whom claim they are unhappy with the church for keeping things “hidden” from them. Look, it isn’t the nature of organizations seeking your money and time to speak negatively of themselves. You just kind of have to find out negative information from other sources and weigh out that information against the organization’s and its proponents’ narratives. One’s own research and critical thinking skills are important in any situation. Plus there are many believers who are aware of all the same information that ex-Mormons are finding out and simply have different ways of interpreting that information in a way in which they still maintain belief.
Welcome back JCS! I enjoy your highly moralistic, single-minded, absolutist take on things. Really.
I hope all is well with you.
I spent 40+ years of my life in the closet. Hiding such a big part of my identity really messed me up. I’m convinced it’s a large part of the reason I have so few close friendships. Relationships can’t flourish when one person is open, honest, and completely vulnerable and the other person is hiding fundamental truths about themselves.