This past week we witnessed General David Petraeus’ resignation as the head of the CIA due to a extramarital affair in which he was involved. Presumably, General Petraeus believed that as long as the affair was a secret he could continue to exercise his responsibilities as the chief of the CIA. Once the secret was revealed however, he knew his only option was to resign. It seems to be the nature of things that when people are hiding important information from others, they truly believe they can go on doing so without consequence. Such is the power of denial and the power of secrets. In the end though, the truth always comes out, and the magnitude of the secret , and how long it has been kept, determine the consequences, which can be enormous.
As a culture we seem fascinated with the secrets and lies of famous people. We are especially attentive when they go to extreme lengths to deny or coverup the truth. I can only assume that we are fascinated by these stories because we see in them a projection of ourselves and our own struggles to be honest men and women. Rather than expend energy wondering how a four star general, politician or celebrity could live a life of lies, perhaps we are best to look in the mirror and examine our own lives for any secrets we might be keeping, big or small.
The 12-step recovery movement has a great saying: “You are only as sick as your secrets.” It’s not just the content of the secret that is unhealthy, but what creates the greatest amount of dis-ease is the emotional and spiritual energy it requires to keep the secret hidden. If you’ve ever seen the face of a young child who has stolen a cookie from the cookie jar and is trying to conceal their guilt, you know how much energy it takes. It takes no less energy for adults to hide their secrets. Adults who try to hide secrets may instead find themselves hiding behind alcohol or other drugs, being overly busy, or avoiding important conversations and relationships.
There is a great Robert Frost quote about secrets:
“We dance round in a ring and suppose. While the secret sits in the middle and knows.”
When a secret exists within a family, the whole family ends up “dancing round in a ring and suppose(s), while the secret sits in the middle and knows.” Families can go to great lengths to hide a drinking problem, a mental illness, infidelity, domestic violence, verbal abuse, a child who is struggling or financial struggles. Without a word being said, everyone learns the dance of denial, even though they all carry around the knowledge that something is not right. This dance can last a long time, but it cannot last forever because the truth always breaks through in one form or another. The initial clue that a secret exists will often be the breakdown in functioning of one of the family members affected by the secret, such as when a teenager’s grades begin to plummet, a spouse develops severe depression, or a young child becomes paralyzed with fear.
Another way to make this point is to say that it’s not just that families keep secrets, but that secrets keep families. They keep families from being fully alive and fully connected to others. On the other hand, when a family or individual has the courage to reveal a secret, when it is finally released, new energy and growth can occur for the family or individual. So for example, when a spouse courageously reveals for the first time the secret of their abusive childhood to the other spouse, the fact that this is no longer secret leads to greater trust and intimacy in the marriage. Another example might be when an adult child is able to confide with his or her parents and siblings that they are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Bringing this secret out into the open will most likely begin a period of healing and new life for the family.
Every religion has rites for the confession of sins and evealing of secrets which provide a way for them to be released, and for healing to begin. Jesus said, “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed or secret is meant to be brought out into the open.” If you are burdened by a secret, maybe it is time to find someone you trust with whom you can release it. It could be a friend or family member, or a rabbi, priest or pastor, or perhaps a therapist. Find someone to help you tell the truth, your truth, so that you can take that first step toward living an integrated, authentic life. Because in the end, no secret is worth the cost of losing a job, a relationship, or one’s integrity. When secrets are brought out in the open it is not always easy, but it is the first step towards having the peace of mind and heart for which we all yearn.