Saturday, July 27, 2013

"shared secrets," the oxymoron

On a sunny, early Sunday morning, before the advent of cell phones, I was walking down a street in New York when I came upon a man sitting on the sidewalk ... slumped/splayed/leaning against an apartment building. He seemed to be in his 40's, was filthy and he was out cold. Uncombed hair, three or four days worth of whiskers, and a half-dried rivulet of mucous emanating from his nose. His grubby plaid shirt was misbuttoned. From between his spread legs, an etched trickle of urine headed for the gutter, then petered out like some arroyo in Texas.

Since New York is a place of upscale and low-brow addicts of all kinds, the sight was not that unusual. But what caught my attention was the man's face. It was grey in the way that dying or dead people's faces are grey. It was the grey-ness -- the death -- that made me look around for a cop or a phone booth from which to call one. No shops were open, so I couldn't go in and ask to borrow the phone. Still, I felt with insistence that I had to do something so I set off at a brisk walk, circling the nearby blocks, looking for a phone, looking for a cop, looking for an open establishment that might have a phone.

It was no use.

Finally, I circled back to my starting point, only to find that although the urine trail was still there, the man was gone. Apparently he was not as dead as I had thought he might be or become. Addiction is a killer, but that doesn't mean it kills anyone all at once.

Last night on television, two commentators were reviewing the week's news -- news that included aspects of both the Bradley Manning trial and the on-going saga of Edward Snowden. Both men have revealed government secrets and both men are in deep shit. Secrecy, one of the commentators observed, is like a narcotic -- the more you have the more you want. Yes, the other said, but without secrecy, there are probably a lot of things -- important things -- that wouldn't get done.

As a public policy debate, we could probably drink beer and eat chips all night long and never get anywhere on the matter of secrecy. But as a matter of personal policy ...?

No one has to be Japanese or British to know the heady nature of secrecy. Secrets are power ... power to defend, power to attack, power to be powerful. Secrets separate and seem to enhance the knower even as they place the unknower at a disadvantage. Secrets assert control. Spiritual life, politics, war, academics ... all make a pretty good living by employing secrets. And let's not forget just how much damned fun there can be in knowing a secret.

It is strange to notice that a secret cannot be a secret unless it is shared. Yet once it is shared, how can it any longer be called a secret? Or, as Dorothy Parker once observed more or less, "How can we expect others to keep our secrets when we can't even keep them ourselves?" A "shared secret" is an oxymoron... unless, as is often the case, anyone wants to assert power and control. Whether this is a grey-faced narcotic or a bubblicious blessing ... pick your secret poison.

It is the secrets within that interest me more than the public policy secrets that narcotize or inspire. How many secrets does anyone keep from himself as a means of asserting control and separation and enthronement? How wise are such secrets? Sometimes, perhaps it is secrets that allow anyone to function during a perfectly ordinary day ... because if the secret came to light, things would dissolve into ineffective chaos. Psychologists make a good living enticing these secrets into the light. Secrets may be quite useful in one sense, but they burden the keeper, sometimes into a grey-faced stupor.

Well, I'm just prattling... wondering if it is not a good idea to keep as many secrets as anyone might like, but to be wary of keeping secrets from one's self. A world without secrets ... is such a thing actually possible? I doubt it, but I do think the place to find out begins in the bathroom mirror. What is, after all, actually secret? I may want to keep a secret from you, but is it necessary to keep things secret from myself? Why? Or, why not?

Why is the sky blue?

It's a secret.

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