Every Life Holds Secrets
Every life is a patchwork of secrets, half-truths, evasions, shams and disguises. The most authentic among us have hidden compartments, shadowy corners, and taboo behaviors we keep under wraps for fear of destroying our public image.
I know a wonderful Buddhist teacher who sells pot for extra money, a radical feminist whose sexual tastes call for chauvinist pigs to restrain her in bed, a vegan who eats bacon out of town, a priest who doesn’t believe in God, a bestselling author who doesn’t write, a poet who slept with his best friend’s adult daughter, and a college professor who used to turn tricks.
These are not immoral people. Were you to meet any one of them on a plane, you’d find them smart, engaging, and authentic, the kind of folks you’d want as friends. Their contradictions would not trouble you because you’d never know about them; you would interact with their public self and be blissfully ignorant of the rest. Social behavior is always selective so this would not qualify as deception. If our tell-it-all culture were not so naïve, we would know that secrets are natural, not indicators of inner corruption (“You’re only as sick as your secrets!”). We could stop pretending to be open books and admit to being abridged and encoded.
Holding to Hypocrisy
Instead, we resort to hypocrisy. Keepers of the darkest secrets tend to be the most judgmental. But inside every one of us there are other personalities, other behaviors, other desires, other masks. We’re shape-shifting and many-layered, moving easily from public to secret and back again, mercurial, paradoxical, and predictably irrational.
We are not the same in all situations; what happens elsewhere stays elsewhere; this is a fact of our secretive lives. I remember being at the New Orleans Mardi Gras, watching a group of conservative Christians gathered around two half-naked leather queens beating each other with riding crops. These tourists were having the time of their life, laughing and egging the revelers on. At home, they’d condemn these sodomites and deny that they found them fascinating. But here on a hot afternoon in New Orleans with a couple of julips in them before lunch, who the hell cared? They had abandoned their scruples along with their Samsonites back at the Super 8.
Why A Secret Life Is Important
A secret life is critical. Everybody needs one. “We are poor, indeed, if we are only sane,” said psychologist D.W. Winnicott. Life without a shadow to hide in would be hell. We’re not meant to be wholly visible – onstage and accountable, 24/7. The secret life is our secret garden, the off limits place where we can be free, transform ourselves, dream, pretend, and risk, transgress, get lost, and keep hold of our innermost strangeness. We need to the dark – the off limits — to make the lightness of being bearable. We’re checkered creatures – not lily white – and that’s what makes us interesting.
Stephen Dunn puts this well in his poem, “A Secret Life.” “The secret life/begins early, is kept alive/by all that’s unpopular/in you, all that you know/a Baptist, say, or some other/accountant would object to./It becomes what you’d most protect/if the government said you can protect/one thing, all else is ours … Even when you speak to your best friend,/the one who’ll never betray you, you always leave out one thing;/a secret life is that important.” This is why there is virtue in vice. Vice is the shadow’s playground, any form of transgression, the part of ourselves that we keep for ourselves.
Your Secret Life
Think about your own secret life. What parts of yourself do you alter, leave out, abridge, avoid, or misrepresent, in the various corridors of your life? I do this exercise with my students. “I ask them to write down (for their eyes only) a secret, no matter how big or small, they’ve never told anyone. In every class, there’s at least one person who says, “But I don’t have any secrets,” followed by a self-righteous shrug. These are the moments I live for in class. “Really?” I ask. “Not a single one?” This is nearly always followed by a shocked expression, a crease in the brow, and a faltering confession that yes, there is one thing. But they haven’t thought about that in years. In general, these secret-deniers undergo the greatest transformations in class.
Like Colleen. Self-confident, loud, and condescending, this 46-year-old grade school teacher declared herself to be secret-free and scoffed at the exercise. When I pressed Colleen to dig deeper, she accused me of trespassing her boundaries. When I asked her why she thought that, her cheeks turned a light purple. She looked like she wanted to strangle me and stalked out without saying goodbye. The next morning, I got an email from Colleen saying she had hardly slept. “I do have a secret,” she wrote. Her secret was that she hated her life. “I have everything a person could ask for, but secretly, I want to cry all the time.” Her shame at being miserable in a life that others might envy left Colleen in a self-hating quandary.
This concerns us as seekers because we are taught to be transparent and good—sometimes pious—on the path of awakening. And there is a loss in that. It’s no accident that so many spiritual teachers get caught sleeping with their students. The shadow will come out. We have cravings, crevices, hidden parts that call for acknowledgment. Acting on them is another story completely. It’s the attention we bring to our dark parts that changes us, the acknowledgement that we need our secret garden to wander in without judgment or fear. If God exists, It surely meant to plant each of us with a hidden acre all our own.
Denying our secrets empowers our shame. We say to shame, You win. But when we allow our whole mandala to enter into consciousness, and feel the creative power that comes with that, life is immeasurably richer. And shame surrenders. And we stop taking ourselves so damn seriously.
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