Keeping Secrets

SECRETS: DO THEY REALLY HURT?

We All Have Stories We’ll Never Tell.

I don’t know who said this, but whoever did, couldn’t have said it better. The average person has at least one such secret that they’d rather take to the grave than tell someone else. We all lie, we all do wrong, and we all keep secrets, ours or others. No one is spared from this behavioral flaw. Yet, we have scriptures, reams and moral tales telling us to tell the truth, rather than keep secrets and not to create a mountain of lies to hide them. But the question is – Do secrets hurt? Or rather, do ALL secrets hurt?

Let’s first understand what a secret is. The dictionary meaning of a secret is –

Something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others.

But secrets are kept for different reasons –

  1. Commercial Secrets – Like Coca Cola’s recipe! In legal parlance, they’re also called ‘trade secrets’, because they give the owner an edge over the competition, and are the basis of their product’s/service’s success. Such secrets are required to be maintained for obvious commercial benefits. Because of their commercial nature, such secrets are outside the purview of discussions on secret keeping.
  2. Secrets that Hurt – Some parents don’t tell their children about a coming divorce, to protect them from the agony of watching their parents separate. Some family members do not reveal facts about their health to the rest of the family, or certain people in the family, to avoid causing pain. Some do not divulge facts about an affair so that the marriage or relationship stays intact. Such secrets, if revealed, hurt others and may destroy relationships, and are thus kept under wraps.
  3. Secrets of Others – These are not our own, but belong to others, possibly a friend, family member, or an acquaintance and we are forced to keep quiet about them either because of loyalty or because they are not ours to reveal. Either way we are the ones who suffer along with the ones who’s secrets they are.
  4. Little Secrets – These harmless little things, like a crush, a small indulgence you have, a tête-à-tête with a nice neighbour, or harmless gossip, they’re all a part of our lives. We keep them a secret because revealing them, though may not harm others, may cause discomfiture. Like how you lied about not drinking at a friend’s place to your parents? Yes, we all do that.

Recent research, reported in The Atlantic, suggests that keeping secrets adds on to the stress we already have in our urban, modern lives. This article discusses how the harm in secret keeping does not really lie in lying to hide it from others, but in how frequently it weighs on our conscience and causes us mental stress. To quote Slepian, who has researched extensively on this topic and who’s research the above article is about,

Just because the goal of the secret is to hide it, that doesn’t mean the secret is only happening during the brief moments of when you need to hide it…

That means, according to the research, when we keep a secret, it weighs every now and then on our mind, pinches us that we’re wrong, and causes the release of stress hormones, which in the long run, are harmful for our health. No wonder high stress jobs like those of Politicians, CEO’s, Police Officers, cause health issues! My point is not to generalize here but to observe the fact that a job where you have to not only  deal with crisis situations on a day to day basis, but also frequently withhold information, keep secrets and lie inventively, causes stress.

You can try it on yourself if you don’t believe me. Hide something from someone and lie about it, one day. Then tell a different lie about it to someone else the next day. And on the next to next day,  create yet another lie, this time conveyed to a third person. Carry this on for a few days, and then recollect all the lies connected to that one secret you wanted to hide. Can’t do it, right? Gets confusing and frustrating doesn’t it? Can you feel the stress one simple lie causes to you? Those researchers may have a point afterall!

And yet we keep secrets? Why?

I believe that it is because we all think that there are some secrets that need to be kept, because revealing them will only lead to unwanted chaos. 

Consider these examples –

A Man who had a fleeting affair with another woman  (not a physical one, but one with deep attachment) eventually realized that he was wronging his wife. He swore never to do it again, but keeps the affair a secret, for fear of harming his relationship and hurting his wife… Is he wrong to keep it a secret?

I plan a dinner with my gal-pals, and lie to my MIL, who loves a party of any kind, that she can’t come along because I have to go nurse a lonely friend. I lie because my friends and I need some time off from our families and because I know I won’t be able let my hair down with my MIL around. She’s my MIL after all…. Am I wrong in hiding this fact?  

My friend is going through a very painful period where she has found out that she can never be a mother. I keep it a secret from the rest of my friend group, on her request, because she does not want it revealed to everybody yet…. Am I wrong in hiding her secret?

I’m sure most of you will say ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the latter scenarios. Well, my answer is ‘no’ to all three. I believe that if a secret kept can save heartache in a relationship, prevent lasting wrong, prevent a broken home, a broken marriage, or a broken person, then it should be kept a secret. Of course, that excludes life and death situations or gross violations of human rights and morality.

I’ll bring to my aid that famous quote in the Mahabharata:

By telling an untruth for saving a life, one is not touched by sin.

There are times when a simple lie, for example one told to a child, that the needle won’t hurt, can soothe, can help, can keep someone happy. When I was practicing, I had to work on a lawsuit concerning the partition of ancestral property between the heirs. In the course of the lawsuit, it was discovered by our opponent’s side that one of the heirs on our side was adopted. The adopted boy didn’t know this fact. It led to a great rift in the already warring family and caused great pain to the parents of the adopted boy. He eventually left the family, even though the law makes no distinction between adopted and real children. Did the truth bring any good here?

Keeping a secret, therefore, is not a flaw necessarily. Whether it should be kept is dependent upon a person’s outlook, habits, the situation in which the secret originates and the reasons why it must be maintained. My point is that when we keep a secret, we need to ask ourselves a question, “Am I going to do everlasting or great harm to someone else, or to myself, by keeping it?” If your conscience answers in the affirmative, you should reveal it. The human mind and the way human moral principles have evolved, have ensured that its hardwired into our minds that lying is wrong, keeping secrets is wrong and that truth is supreme.

Pradita Kapahi, 2017

The Pradita Chronicles.

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