Are we really only as sick as our secrets?

Posted: May 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

“To thine own self be true; and as sure as night follows day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” ~ William Shakespeare

Last year I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and listened intently as the member delivering their share (the share is the focal point of these meetings, it’s where a seasoned AA member recounts how alcohol addiction affected their lives – usually harrowing listening, and how through engaging with AA and working diligently through the twelve-step programme for recovery their life has been transformed) earnestly admonished, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” I was intrigued by this statement and soon thereafter discovered that it was tantamount to an article of faith in the AA canon, reflecting the rigorous honesty and self-exposition which is considered integral to the success of the twelve-steps and a successful life beyond recovery – life imbued with meaning, purpose and a real sense of achievement. Subsequently, I resolved to spend some time reflecting on the truth of this revered admonition; here then, are some of those reflections.

What does it really mean to be sick? Sick, that is, in the heart and mind – the soul. That sickness, I believe, is inevitable when the finest expressions of the soul are bound, twisted and gagged; when our luminosities are blighted by the tears and scars of their obfuscation and distorted guises. There’s a pandemic of this kind of sickness, and it began with the history of humankind. Knowing and pursuing what we really or most desire has always been fraught with difficulty, not least with regard to who and how we shall be. Yet, this question of who and how we shall be is central to our lives, and clearly, if we are to succeed in fulfilling our desires pertaining to potential identity and being, we must be open and honest with ourselves. Many people are like closed books, not just to others but to themselves – pages unread for fear of understanding or trying to understand; other pages are read, and the book abruptly closed again, the information encountered secreted away into a dark corner of the mind. It is secreted away thus, because it hurts – perhaps because challenges who and how we think we are, or our present outlook or worldview, or our present mode of existence. Yet if we secret away information like this – refusing to hold it up to the light of reasoned analysis and evaluation – we obscure who and how we really are, and the meanings and values we really hold. How then are we to know and pursue our true desire and expression? And how are we to be authentic in our relations with others and in the world at large? We will be burdened with having to wear counterfeit guises – disguises – through which others can relate to us only partially and inadequately. How then can we love and be loved?

The soul desires above all to love and be loved. In the folds of love in its variegated forms, the soul finds its succour and exaltation. But love must have an object, a reality to behold and enfold; marriages breakdown, careers crumble and lives falter because secrets and lies (alternate sides of the same coin) are exposed which reveal a reality inimical to the one in which love sought to root and grow. And yet, we can feel tempted to secret and misrepresent reality because of our overwhelming desire to be loved. When we misrepresent reality and truth however we are obliged to act and order our affairs in such a way that those misrepresentations are perceived as veracious reality by others; in the endeavour to protect an original concealment and hence misrepresentation, we can end up having to live its falsity burdened with having to conjure a myriad of buttressing distortions: otherwise known as having to ‘live a lie’. This is liable to foster chronic anxiety because we are continually in fear of the truth coming to light and the consequent withdrawal of love, and liable also to foster a sullying sense of guilt and shame because we cannot help but be continually reminded that we are betraying the trust implicit in the love and acceptance others are investing in us and the manufactured reality in which we have situated ourselves in their eyes.

There was an interview on the radio recently with a young man who had been addicted to viewing internet pornography. Whilst subsumed in this addiction, he kept its reality under wraps, but constantly lived in fear that it would be discovered. And he felt guilty, ashamed and diffident because the persona he continually presented to others, a persona which he really wanted to believe in himself, was at odds with how he really felt about and saw himself. His communicative engagements with others and pursuits and activities more generally were marred and diminished by the schism in his consciousness pertaining to self-identity. His addiction belonged to an identity with which he wasn’t comfortable with and dared not disclose to others: he was nurturing and protecting, albeit misgivingly, a Mr. Hyde. His perception of women in particular was schismatic – on the one hand viewing them as sexual objects void of any real humanity, and on the other as complete human beings on an equal footing with himself. Resolution came about for this young man through rigorously honest self-examination; he had to be clearer about the organic loving contexts in which meaningful and fulfilling sexual expression takes place. His addiction was a substitute for genuine human engagement, and as a consequence he felt unable to love or be loved. Honesty and openness with himself opened the door to honesty and openness with others – as evinced by his talking on public radio; I think overcoming our inhibitions and fears to share and talk about our inner conflicts encourages the process of catharsis through which we are able to identify our organic needs and expressions. As something of a meaningful aside, according to research 80% of internet activity is porn related – I wonder what percentage of that monumental mass of individuals is openly honest about its viewing activities?

I think it’s critically important that we interrogate our motivations for our secrets. There are, I believe, times when concealment serves the greater good – one can speak of ‘white’ lies, and secrets can be viewed in that light too. Again, whether or not a secret is justified depends on our motivation and the outcome sought. As a matter of common sense, we know for example that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to disclose certain facts and truths to others – timing is an important consideration, because we must be mindful of the effect the information disclosed is likely to have. Will the recipient of that information properly understand its significance? Children, for example, are generally taught the facts of life pertaining to procreation only when they’re ready and able to digest that information. Always, we should consider the contexts around what we communicate. What we choose to disclose to the less understanding and morally compromised, may come back to bite us. If you won a large amount of money, for example, wouldn’t you be circumspect in whom, how and when you chose to disclose that to others? We belong to a broken world, a world in which it is too often necessary, as a pragmatic matter of self-preservation, to veil our true thoughts, feelings and circumstances. And then there is the delicate matter of how we feel about revealing certain matters pertaining to us and our lives. I met a lovely lady recently who used to attend AA meetings; she was eventually persuaded to give a share, but told me that she felt very exposed and uncomfortable in this. I can certainly understand and relate to that; I believe that there is a sense of when and with whom it is propitious to share information with others; in a sense I’m repeating the previous point made, but here the emphasis is on our sensitive and subjective feelings about other people. There are things that I would prefer not to share with many people, not because I fear any immediate deleterious consequences but because I simply don’t feel it’s right and proper that I open a window onto my soul for others who haven’t earned my trust and respect. It’s perfectly natural and normal however to want to share the nature of our very particular journey through life with those with whom we’ve established a strong empathetic bond.

Despite the inhumanity that exists in the world, and consequently the mistrust and suspicion of our fellow brothers and sisters, there is an innate desire to want to believe in our humanity and in this place our trust in others. It doesn’t matter how many times we are lied to, kept in the dark about the true motivations and purposes of others, and betrayed, there is a yearning to behold a common humanity we can trust in that will never go away. If we cannot believe and trust in the good that exists, however obfuscated and repressed, in the human soul, how can we trust in ourselves? How can we trust in love or a universe that is loving? Does life itself secret away its true meaning from us? So, if we are to believe in a common humanity – and I believe we have no real choice in this, for to believe otherwise entails that nothing in life, including life itself, makes sense, and this is an untenable and impossible position for us to adopt – we have but one choice: do we fulfill our humanity, or participate in its negation? The answer should be obvious, and we start by opening our minds and hearts to the reality of all that we are, uncomfortable though that can be: to lie to and secret the truth from ourselves is to participate in our negation, and ultimately humanity’s. If we are not honest and open with ourselves, how can we be with others? And how can others know us as we are, and where they stand with us, if we don’t know ourselves? Who we really are and desire to be is veiled behind all the misrepresenting narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world, narratives that construct a false persona in order to confirm the veracity of what is not, a persona which we can mistakenly believe in however, and enlist the aid of others to confirm this mistake; as secrets to ourselves, we are certainly sick.

If we are to flourish and flower we must continually learn and grow through a deepening engagement with the lived – our experiential journey. There is always the temptation to stymie our progression in this through repressing and suppressing those experiences and the narrative structures they invoke, which challenge the veracity and coherence of our existing structures of understanding. It’s par the journey to encounter structures of understanding we find difficult to integrate into the matrix of our current beliefs, values, feelings, attitudes, expectations and investments in life. It can be daunting and disorientating when we have to confront narratives of knowing which implicitly or explicitly challenge and undermine our existing structures. ‘I’m an alcoholic/drug addict’; ‘My marriage is on the rocks’; ‘The career I’ve been pursuing for years is the wrong one’; ‘The policies of the political party I’ve supported for years are fundamentally at odds with my core beliefs and values’; ‘My long-held conception of God conflicts with the truths implicit in what I have experienced’ – these thoughts posit truths that we probably feel a desire to repress and suppress – secret away into a dark corner of the mind, because to accept them often entails a fundamental overhaul of our structures of understanding, and the lives we have constructed and known around them. But if we choose to believe flowers grow where choking weeds reside, we renounce what is most integral to our humanity – the ability to respond mindfully to the lived. The more we propagate weeds conceiving them as flowers, the deeper we sink into a netherworld of denial and illusion, becoming progressively more enmeshed in and betrothed to a life that is counterfeit. To live mindfully is also to live authentically, being fully present in the world; only in this authenticity of presence can the world be made authentically, fully present for us; in an open and honest communion with the lived we are emancipated to be all that we can be.

© Steven J. Oram


  1. Clarissa Danae says:

    This was thoughtful, thought provoking and beautiful.

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