The joy and pain of secrets




The question, “Can you keep a secret?” caresses intrigue like no other utterance. At its heart there is a burning invitation to indulge in wonder, speculation, or conviction – and occasionally all three simultaneously – with the storyline, more often than not, wrapped in an air of delicious mystery.

Personally, excitement figures highly in my desire to express an assured undertaking that meets the confidentiality clause, even if I usually break this contract by passing it onto at least one other person who I deem to have a superior moral code to mine. The reason is simple. I love to be trusted, but my adherence to seeing the undertaking through doesn’t necessarily match. Since secrets are hard to keep – aren’t they? – I reassure myself that most of the secrets I’m told have either done the rounds already or are no more than gratuitous gossip.

However, recently I was told a secret of such immense proportions that it both blew my mind and caused an avalanche of cerebral suffering. I became conscious that I had to adopt a clumsy communication style when the concealment boundaries were threatened and, when my linguistic skills failed me, I had to lie in order to protect the continued existence of the secret. This began to trouble me, since the recipients of my falsehoods were those closest to me. Who was benefiting from this cloak-and-dagger escapade, and had I been too quick to accept the stifling responsibility of hosting this burden? Were secrets really that scintillating?

Although, no doubt, I stand to be corrected sometime in the future, I make the presumption that everyone has secrets. Indeed, according to research undertaken at Columbia University in America, we have – on average – 13 secrets, with five of them remaining in our peak consciousness – the space where we only communicate with ourselves. The rest usually find their way into mainstream circulation, since human beings are pretty useless at keeping secrets. As evidence of this observation, the academic findings suggest that a whopping 78 percent of disclosed secrets are almost immediately shared with another party.

In my case, the secret bestowed upon me was so utterly seismic that sharing it wasn’t an option. Although this confidentiality had a time limit, it felt akin to holding fire, and the more I tried to keep it hidden within my mind, the more it bellowed out at me, drowning everything else in my already cluttered mind. If I were to say to you, “Don’t think of the colour red”, what would you focus upon? Exactly! And these mindful acrobatics were beginning to make me react like a scalded cat – flinching when the source of the secret was mentioned by others, or any connection, real or imagined, to the subject of the clandestine charade. It was beginning to hurt.

According to psychiatrist Doctor Grant Hilary Brenner, the pain is real, as internal conflict is not dissimilar to physical discomfort. He asserts that, “Common wisdom tells us that keeping secrets can take a terrible toll, and revealing information can be a step toward recovery. The bigger the secret, the harder to keep it, the greater the potential conflict.” But one remark by the good doctor really hit home for me: “Keeping secrets limits responsiveness by preventing people from acting naturally and sharing freely.” Although the secret I was carrying was profoundly positive, the energy required to keep the lid on this particular Pandora’s box was immense. As the researchers at Columbia concluded, this mental anguish is harmful because of its “taxing effects in social interactions.”

Concealment and continued caution don’t come easily, and as a connoisseur of good gossip I was finding this whole experience exhausting.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I was left exposed; my dialogue and non-verbal communication clumsily conspired to give the game away – thankfully to those close to me who, ironically, would have been told of the secret at the ordained time. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I blinked, squirmed, and tried to disappear into an imaginary hole of safe haven, where the continued questioning and overt guesses (which happened to be correct) wouldn’t find me.

Although embarrassed to have succumbed to the interrogation – especially given my policing past – I was nonetheless relieved, and on reflection, pleased that I had held it together for as long as I had. Furthermore, how could I argue with the great George Orwell? He wrote, in the momentous 1984, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

When you are next enticed with the words, “Can I tell you a secret?” my learned advice is to simply say no and wait for it to be disclosed by another tortured soul in open forum. Otherwise, be prepared for the initial spark of pleasure to be quickly replaced by a burdensome brainstorm. In the style of Rhett Butler in the epic Gone with the Wind – frankly my dear, it simply isn’t worth it.

Ian Kirke

As a kid, and latterly a dad and police officer, I realised that I have an almost endless list of things I want to make sense of. I suspect I am not alone. Hopefully, as a law graduate and post-graduate criminologist, my life observations reflect a degree of authenticity and balance – but I’ll allow you to judge that for yourself. Synthesising humour, grief, horror and hedonism, I think I’m an all-rounder! I am also a frustrated speedway promoter, passionate Notts County fan and part-time philosopher.

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