I recently stumbled across a blog entirely devoted to the sharing of secrets. The project began as a public art project in 2004, when its founder, Frank Warren, distributed 3,000 self-addressed postcards with instructions to write down and illustrate a secret and send it back.
He stuck the cards in library books, left them on city bus seats, and in any spot where he thought they might get picked up. His only requirement was that the secret be true and that the secret had never been told before. The postcards began to trickle in, and then pour, and the deluge continues to this day, sometimes as many as 200 fill Warren’s mailbox. Every Sunday he posts about 20 fresh secrets from all over the world.
The posts are in turns hopeful, lewd, humorous and heartbreaking. Warren believes that his blog serves a larger purpose — that the act of designing and sending these cards is cathartic. In an interview with CNN, he said that the act of sharing secrets helps people to make changes in their lives, to become free from their past. “We think we’re keeping secrets, but the secrets are actually keeping us,” he said.
Although the blog is fascinating, there is something unsettling about the idea of people turning first to a stranger with their secrets — a stranger who can not look them in the eye, give them a hug or help keep them accountable over the long haul.
In my life, the sharing of secrets has always taken place within the context of ongoing relationships. Most secrets are part of a larger tangle of truths about our own lives and the lives of those we’ve known. When secrets have been submerged for many years, it can be a struggle to find words. As the early Christian Desert Father Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to speak what is in your heart.”
The more our mouths are able to speak the hidden truth of our hearts, the closer we can draw to others and to God. Sometimes we fear our secrets so much that we fill our lives with all kinds of chatter and business in an effort to avoid being alone with them. Our desperation prevents us from encountering the One who knows our raw and hidden places and is ready to love into them.
In his book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes candidly about his father’s suicide, as well as his daughter’s struggle with Anorexia. He feels that these family secrets have shaped his life, his character, and his vocation as a writer and minister, and he continually mines them for insight into who he is and where he is headed. He believes that two of the most powerful tensions in life are the desire to share our secrets and our almost paralyzing fear of them.
“I not only have my secrets,” writes Frederick Buechner, “I am my secrets. And you are your secrets … our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.” By sharing our secrets, we draw closer to another human being by letting them know us in a deeper way.
Although people tend to think that in order to make friends you need to impress people with your accomplishments and skills, the reverse is more often true. One of my seminary professors explained it this way, “When we brag about ourselves we alienate others, but when we share our struggles we invite people in.”
When we begin to tell our secrets, we invite those around us to share their own. As the conversation deepens, two souls lean towards each other and each feels less alone.
Safe to Share?
Not every person, however, is ready to hear our secrets, which is part of why I found the blog I mentioned at the beginning of this article so disconcerting. Some people become uneasy the moment they hear another person admitting weakness, perhaps because the conversation might call them to share their own secrets.
There is no need to burden another person with information they’re not yet able to bear. In most cases, the person who becomes uneasy around your honesty is not yet begun to be honest with themselves. Until this person can face up to their own issues, they are likely to blindly hurt others in the ways they have been hurt. As the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince might tell you, some people just haven’t yet been tamed.
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the Little Prince.
“You must be very patient.”
“First you will sit down a little distance from me — like that — in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing.”
“But you will sit a little closer to me, every day.”
The image of the Little Prince quietly moving a little closer to the fox each day reminds me of how delicate a fresh friendship can be, how slowly trust forms — and how painstakingly it must be rebuilt after it has been broken. Over the years, I’ve sometimes made the mistake of sharing too much too soon, but I’m getting a little better at taking time to pause and watch people as the fox does, observing them before I begin to speak. As a mentor once told me, “You are responsible for the people you chose to trust.”
Healing Our Wounds
According to the Twelve Step programs, we are as sick as our secrets. But if we can find a safe place to share our secrets we can begin to work toward healing. For centuries, Christian churches recognized the healing power of sharing our inmost struggles through the Rite of Confession.
In my church, confession remains a staple of the spiritual life. Many times when I’ve gone to confession, the priest has reminded me that he is “only a witness.” We make our confession before God, but it’s helpful to have another person beside us, to hear our secret struggles and to help us navigate the raw terrain of our inner lives.
When I was at seminary, I remember making a confession in the midst of a lightning storm. The chapel was dark, save for a few candles, and outside the wind and rain raged. As I released my secret sins, one after the other, rain dripped down the windows, thunder shook the chapel and lightening cracked the sky. It felt as if the world was breaking open along with my heart.
When I think of the grace of that night, I’m reminded of a poem by Daniel Ladinsky, from his book Love Poems from God:Poem used with permission of the author. From Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky, published by Penguin Compass, 2002.
A Thorn has entered your foot. That is why you
weep at times at
There are some in this world
who can pull it
The skill that takes they have
We can hide our secrets in tear-stained night for as long as we want to, but it is only when we chose to bring them out into the light of a relationship with another human being that healing can begin.
Copyright 2007 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.