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In Defense of Secrets February 2, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

I have secrets.  I could share them with you, but then I’d have to kill you.

I like secrets.  It occurs to me as of late that secrets, for the most part, are portrayed as negative.  Secrets have become classified as things that can cause damage or hurt, and the people that possess secrets are shady and nefarious and generally up to no good. Honest people who live their lives in a morally upright way have no need for secrets.

Nonsense, I say.  Secrets are neutral.  They are merely information stored.  Memories of past events, knowledge of future events, thoughts on the same–they’re just air, or vibrations, or brain wrinkles, or whatever it is thoughts are made from.  What makes them “good” or “bad” is subjective.  We attach the value judgments .  I disagree wholeheartedly with the notion that the things we keep secret are by default harmful, and that we can’t be both honest and secretive at the same time.

Secretive.  Even the word sounds nasty, doesn’t it?

Once secrets are exposed, they change the way other people look at us–sometimes for the better, but sometimes not.   It’s why I feel that it’s important to be careful with whom you share your secrets, if at all.

I love the story that came out quite some years back about Jack Nicholson.  He discovered a family secret: his mother was actually his grandmother and his mother was the woman he thought was his older sister.  Jack’s response?  “I’ve often said about them: Show me any women today who could keep a secret, confidence, or an intimacy to that degree, you got my kind of gal.”

We love transparency.  We expect our governments to operate in the open, we demand access into the private lives of public people, we don’t tolerate our loved ones keeping anything from us.  But mostly we just want someone to tell us what’s going on.  Everything that’s going on.  We want in.  We don’t like being out of the loop.

The thing is, secrets are private things.  As in not out in the open.  Not for public consumption.  Mine, and mine alone.  I remember when The DaVinci Code came out there was a whole brouhaha about the “secret Vatican archives.”  Yes, they do exist.  Oh, the uproar!  The Church is keeping secrets!  What’s in those archives that they don’t want us to see?

Some poor schmuck from the Pope’s office had to explain (again) to the dimwitted press and the panty-knotted public that the word “secret” in this case means “private”, as in not open to the general public.  What’s in there? Just a couple of millennia worth of very old, very delicate documents that could easily be destroyed by the great unwashed running their grubby mitts all over them.  You can see them, if you have the necessary qualifications and you ask.  Nicely.  Lots of museums have private collections (of varying degrees of irreplaceableness) that you can’t just walk in off the street to see.  They’re secret.  I mean, we know they’re there, we know what’s in them, but if we want to see them for ourselves we have to get permission.  We have to show that we can be trusted with the material. And here’s the thing: not everyone gets in.  It’s how secrets work.

It was the best definition of “secret” I’d heard in a long time, and it made me rethink secrets in general.

I have secrets, but if I choose not to share them with you it’s not because I’m up to no good, or that my secret is something I’m ashamed of.  The problem isn’t the secret itself, nor is my lack of openness a defect of my character.  If you aren’t in on something that I consider private, the problem is probably you.

Perhaps  I haven’t told you my secret because you lack the sophistication and intelligence to grasp the subtle nuances of the secret.  The people I’ve told the secret to are people who’ve already proven that they have the intellectual maturity to pull the secret apart, study it, reassemble it, and study it some more before making any decisions about it.  You prefer to take things on their face value–usually because it’s easier, but mostly because you’re just not terribly bright– stating with great authority that what It says is exactly what It means, while failing to go beyond the surface and find the truth hidden under the layers.  You seek the sensational.  You think the secret is a nail, so you become a hammer.

The secret is complicated.

It could also be true that you have little emotional control or stability.  The secret I’m holding, should I share it with you, will become for you a juicy little nugget of delight, and you’ll be so tickled to your very marrow that you’ll have to tell someone else, or explode.  You take childish delight in feeling that you know something others don’t; unfortunately for the secret, you have to tell it in order to let others know that you are in this small way superior to them.  It doesn’t matter that the secret didn’t originate with you, or that by telling what little you know you’ve given away a part of that perceived power.  Because you have to let the world know that you know, you cannot know.

The secret requires self-control.

For some, I can’t let you in on the secret because you are, in the end, rigid and unyielding in your own sense of rightness.  The secret requires that you set aside everything you think you know, everything you believe, and open your mind to see beyond your own narrow world view.  You have to be accepting and understanding, empathetic and intuitive, and you are probably lacking in one or more of those areas.

The secret doesn’t require your judgment.

I mean, it’s not about how much I like you.  It’s merely that, unlike Jack, you can’t handle the truth.  And that’s okay.  I know there are secrets that I’m not privy to.  It’s the way of the universe, and it’s as it should be.

I put forth the notion that everyone is entitled to keep secrets.  Secrets themselves are not bad to have, and if you have some, you should treasure them.  You should hang on to them if only as a touchstone reminder that we live in a world where privacy is a diminishing commodity.

In the Internet age, transparency is all to easy and I wonder if keeping secrets is going to become a dying skill, like cursive handwriting.



1. Batty - February 2, 2011

I think of secrets (insofar as I have them) as information that is revealed on a need to know basis. Some people don’t need to know certain things. If that changes, I’ll make sure they learn. Otherwise… sorry. No dice.

2. bezzie - February 2, 2011

Good post. But I do have to say if a creepy uncle is touching my kids wrong and swearing them to secrecy, I don’t think anyone is entitled to keep that secret.
I also have to say I’m a secret convert. When suave stopped working for me on hot days, I discovered secret. Oh wait…

3. Camille - February 2, 2011

Bravo Poops. Nicely stated, nicely done.

4. Louise - February 3, 2011

Secrets as something you have to prove you can be trusted with … lovely way of putting it. And as something you ought to have vested interest in – do you want to know just for the sake of knowing, or is it really important to you?

I have many things I don’t tell other people, not because they are great secrets, but just because I prefer keeping most of my own thoughts private.

Says the blogger!

5. Shelly - February 3, 2011

This post rocks on so many levels. That is all.

6. Turn, Turn, Turn « askpoopsplease - October 1, 2012

[…] sex. It’s still so very, very taboo to discuss. So I’ve done my work in secret. Not secret in a way that secrets are bad, but secret in that i… If you are inclined to think that what I write is sinful, I know I can’t change your mind. […]

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