Tag Archives: honesty

We are only as sick as our secrets

Secrets have been on my mind for the past year, ever since my mother revealed a secret she had been keeping for almost fifty years—which sparked my own awareness of a secret I had been keeping even longer.

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Since then, I seem to be very aware of others’ secrets and how often people shade the truth or tell half-truths to frame things in a different light.

For example, I recently attended a talk about Etty Hillesum, a woman who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. The speaker talked of Etty’s affair with her professor but failed to mention that Etty had had an abortion. I wondered why. Etty wrote about the abortion; it was not a secret, yet this person recalling Etty’s life left out this detail.

Was she trying to protect Etty by not talking about the abortion? Did she have feelings of shame around abortion that led her to omit it? This presentation was at a Catholic retreat center, and I wondered if the setting and the audience prompted this omission. But why did she include the details of the affair? It was all a mystery to me.  

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Secrets abound in the British detective tv shows I watch. Often, some secret is being kept which is key to solving the mystery.  “Why didn’t you tell us?” the detective asks in exasperation when the secret finally comes out. The detective doesn’t care that the grandfather had a child with the maid or that the mother had a wild past or that the children have squandered their inheritance. The detective just wants the facts and not an edited version of history.

It seems that we can be our own worst judges when it comes to our secrets, believing that the worst will happen if our secrets are revealed.

The truth is that we are the same people we were before our secrets were revealed, and those who love us will continue to love us once they know our secrets.

People may be surprised or even shocked to learn of some traumatic event in our past. They may have to adjust their image of us. They may review the relationship in light of new information, but if they really love us, they will get over their shock and adjust their image. They will remember that we are the same person we were before they knew our secrets.

I have always been open about being a rape survivor, but not everyone in my life knows about it, mostly because it does not come up in everyday conversation and because I have moved around a lot. The “getting to know you” phase of new friendships don’t usually include talk of rape or other traumas, so while my history is not a secret for me, it usually doesn’t come up until a relationship is established.

My goal is to have nothing to fear, nothing to prove and nothing to hide. I desire to live transparently, holding nothing back and keeping no secrets.

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Shh, it’s a secret

Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.

secret-truth-vulnerability

The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.

And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.

I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.

I was hurt and angry.

Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.

Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.

secret-truth-vulnerability

At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”

My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.

Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.

What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.  

A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.

Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.

Back to the tree…apple scenario.

I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.

And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.

But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.

Works of mercy

The Little Black Book, a collection of daily reflections for Lent, recently focused on almsgiving.

“Almsgiving results from feelings of pity and compassion for someone in need. It’s often associated with giving money to the poor but almsgiving includes all of the seven corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, burying the dead.”

Visiting the imprisoned jumped off the page.

God-Lent-spirituality

Next week will be the tenth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death. After his death, a woman at church told me how grateful she was that Jim had visited her son in prison. I remembered that visit because I had gone with Jim. She asked why, and I explained that Jim had never visited anyone in prison before, so he asked me to go with him because he knew I had. She asked if I was a probation officer or social worker and I said “no.” Then why I had visited someone in prison? “It is in the Bible,” I said. She looked confused, so I quoted from Matthew 25. She still looked confused, so I tried a different approach.

I asked if she had visited her son in prison, and she said she had. I then asked if she would visit someone else in prison, now that she could see from her son’s experience what it was like to be locked up. She became defensive and explained that her son was not like other people in prison. “He just…” she started, but I stopped her. “Your son broke the law and got caught, right?” “Yes, but…” she started, and again I stopped her and pointed out he is just like the other people in prison who broke the law and got caught.

Why, I wondered, can it be so difficult to see ourselves and those we love honestly?

To be fair, I understand that this woman wanted to put this episode in her son’s life behind her, but I wondered how she could do that without accepting the truth of her son’s situation.

A few years later, I met a woman who told me her son was at “boot camp.” I asked which branch of the service, and she said it was a different kind of boot camp. “Some people say he is in prison, but he is not in prison” she said.

I recently read an article by a man on death row, reflecting on how he and others on death row were consoled by a priest who has cared for them and helped them grow spiritually. I am doing an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality and pondering how I might use what I am learning. The article prompted the thought that maybe I could offer a listening ear to someone who is in prison.

Reflecting on the article, people I have visited in prison and these two mothers made me wonder if I am being invited to this work of mercy.

God-Lent-spirituality
Wordcloud for “When did you see me?”