In Praise of Secrecy

Years ago, a therapist once said to me, “Stephen, you are so open, and honest. You expose so much of yourself to the world, and that is wonderful. But I want to challenge you to do something: keep secrets. Keep something away from the world, just for yourself. I don’t care what it is – it could be your favorite drink at Starbucks – but just keep something secret.”

That advice has lived within me for years now. I am, as my therapist said, open and honest, but “pathologically honest” might be a better description. I trust too readily, and I generally believe that people can’t hurt me (and usually they can’t) when I share my innermost secrets. I learned the lesson early that to be an artist means, in the words of Amanda Palmer, to “eat the pain, send it back to the void as love.” This requires nakedness, and such emotional nakedness in front of strangers never bothered me much; in fact, I find it easy and comforting.

I used to think that this was just me – and perhaps to a degree, I am more open than most – but I’m beginning to realize that it’s also the spirit of the age. We share our whole lives on facebook, twitter, instagram and snapchat. The unreality of the internet feels safe to us, even when there are real people on the other side. We (and I) are vulnerable on the internet in ways we never could be in person.

The internet has become like a blinding sun, chasing away every shadow and exposing every hiding place within ourselves. We are obligated to share, and share, and share. I find myself frustrated with a subtle resistance to privacy – a gravitational pull to share everything with everyone. When something horrific happens in the news – another abuse of power, another massacre – I must post something, join the outrage machine to officiate my grief. As if it’s impossible to grieve fully and silently off the internet with my flesh-and-blood friends. As if it doesn’t exist at all if it isn’t captured in a tweet.

In this age of constant sharing, transparency is our highest virtue. Someone who shares deeply, passionately, holding nothing back – this is the person we admire. We adore great truth-tellers, and well we should, but I can’t help but feel that we have it only half right.¬†As I’ve spent the years meditating on the advice my therapist gave me, I’ve come to realize that secrecy is a virtue as well.

Secrecy creates sacredness. Secrecy protects. Paradoxically, secrecy makes radical honesty more possible. When I withhold information, when I hold some things close as precious, sacred objects that only I or a select few have access to, it makes me feel freer to be honest and authentic with what I do share. It also makes the recipients of sharing feel safe, too: they can sense the boundaries, and boundaries are reassuring.

There are many reasons why I won’t share something: maybe it just hurts too much. Maybe it is too beautiful, tender, or intimate to share. Maybe it is too sacred. I’ve had experiences in my yoga practice that I will never share with the public, as they are too full and majestic to express. I scope out places where no eye of a camera will ever touch, where I can have true silence or intimacy. I keep my relationship with my partner off the web – he’s the love of my life, and I don’t want a million eyes prying on the sacred, secret space we’ve created between us.

Openness, authenticity, and radical sharing only work when they are juxtaposed with secrets of our own choosing. Secrets from ourselves are deadly things, but secrets by our own choosing can be beautiful, delicious things. Openness is only sustainable and healthy when we are free to keep certain things hidden behind a veil.

So my admonishment is this: find something you love and keep it secret. Hide it away from the blinding sun, from the million eyes. Maybe it’s a restaurant, a path, a tree, a relationship. Maybe it’s a book, a show, or an activity. Whatever it is, let it be your sacred thing, your holy connection. Don’t feel ashamed for keeping secrets, and don’t apologize for refusing to grieve, celebrate, or pontificate on social media when you need to withdraw. Stand defiant against the gravitational visibility of the online world; embrace the warm, nurturing darkness of secrecy.

  1. This is amazing, Stephen. You’ve put words to what I’ve increasingly struggled to explain in recent months/years. Three years ago it was beyond revitalizing to come out online with my sexuality. And yet in the years since then, I’ve struggled to differentiate my “online life” and my offline one. My Internet contacts and my face-to-face ones. As grateful as I am for this coming-into-the-light moment, I too am learning it’s okay to have some secrets and not disclose every little thing. Thanks for this reassurance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *