Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Emotional ( & Physical) Burden of Keeping Secrets

Many years ago I was in a discussion about a personal problem with a colleague, I’ll call him G, and I was pouring my heart out to him.
At one point I said, “Hey G, I want to tell you something. However, you must promise to keep it a secret and not tell it to anyone else, even your wife.” 
He replied, “Jammi, you know the funny thing about secrets? Person A thinks he needs to lighten his burden by sharing his ‘burdensome’ secret to one (and only one) friend, let’s call him B. He binds him to a promise not to tell anyone else.  But if A could make that concession for something that is HIS secret, what about B, for whom it is not even his secret? So sooner or later B will probably feel the urge or give up his self control by telling A’s secret to just one (& possibly another) close friend. Of course he will dutifully bind them to a similar promise of secrecy. This cycle of ‘kiss and tell’ now propagates in geometric progression, as the distance from the subject of the secret (A) increases. So if you really want something to remain a secret don’t even tell me.”
His response left a lasting impression on my mind and I have been thinking and reading up on this issue since then. This is also one of the ideas for the book that I intend to write once I retire! (I would of course need another lifetime to market the book!). But, I offer some thoughts of what I gathered from the analysis:
1.       A secret (whether ours or another’s) is a burden we carry.
This has been proved by scientific experimentation. A research article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, describes an experiment in which participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked to write details of a serious secret, e.g., cheating on their spouse or similar. The control group on other hand wrote details of a trivial secret, like when they lied on their tax return. They were then asked to look at a hill in the distance and estimate the steepness of the hill. The participants with the serious secret perceived the hill as significantly steeper than those from the control group. In prior research psychologists have proved that people with physical burdens also perceive distant hills as steeper than the control group which was not similarly burdened.
2.       Keeping a secret requires lying.
A lie is generally defined as conveying something which is not truthful. The Wikipedia entry for lie reads: “To lie is to intentionally deliver a false statement to another person which the speaking person knows is not the whole truth.”   So the moment we hide something, our words, even if factually correct, become a lie. Let me illustrate this with what to me is the most famous lie from Hindu scriptures - the lie uttered by Yudhishthira during the Mahabharata war. When Drona, the commander of the Kauravas was wreaking havoc on the Pandava army, Krishna realised that the only way to get him down was to make him lose the will to live. He came up with a plan to achieve this conveying to him the news of the killing of his son Ashwathama.  As per the plan, Bhima killed an elephant named Ashwathama and the whole Pandava army proclaimed loudly, "Ashwathama is dead! Ashwathama is dead!".  When Drona heard this he sought out Yudhisthira and, believing that Yudhisthira would never lie, asked him if his son Ashwathama was indeed dead. Prompted by Krishna, Yudhisthira said "Ashwathama is dead" (in sanskit अश्वत्थामा हतः). Stung by a pang of conscience he immediately muttered inaudibly, naro vā kuñjaro vā, नरो वा, कुञ्जरो वा (not the man but the elephant). But in the din of battle Drona did not hear the second sentence, laid down his arms and sat in meditation. Dhristadyumna took this opportunity, and beheaded him. (It is said that because of this deception Yudhisthira’s chariot, which always levitated 4 cm above the ground, immediately touched the ground).
When we keep a secret we have to resort to subterfuge and use various deceptive techniques like, economising with the truth, bluffing, lying by omission etc. In Yudhishtira’s case he sought to clarify the truth sotto voce. However we do it, in our heart of hearts we probably know that we are lying and therefore carry an emotional burden.  Some people have a weaker moral standard which enables them to withstand such emotional burdens better than others, but sooner or later it gets to us.
3.       We all have the urge to tell secrets to others:
Maybe not our own, but generally other’s. The moment we hear a secret about someone else we want to share that with some others in our circle. Usually the juicier the secret, the bigger the temptation.   Maybe the motivation is something as harmless as the need to show off that ‘we know’. Or the motivation could be a malicious intent to hurt the subject of the secret. Sometimes it is not even the temptation to tell, but just that we feel over-burdened by carrying the secret in our hearts.
All Secret Services and the Mafia understand this human tendency. In addition they have the fear that any enemy can torture the secret out of people. They therefore have policies in place that information is to be shared only on a ‘Need to know’ basis.
Moral of the story:
Know the seriousness of your secrets before sharing. If it is something that will blow away after a month or a year, it’s not bad. You could share it with a ‘close friend’. But share it with the sure knowledge that he/she would one day pass it on. If, however, it is something that you would not want to be known even after you are long dead and gone (like a marital infidelity), then zip your lips.
As for a friend’s secret, if she/he comes up to you and wants to tell you a secret provided you promise not to tell anyone else, tell them that you are human and cannot make that promise. We don’t need a group of psychologists to tell us that losing a friend puts an unimaginable emotional burden on us – more than the burden of keeping a secret!