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! 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Societal Attitudes need to change.

3 weeks have passed since the gruesome and barbarous attack on a defenseless young girl and her male companion on a bus in Delhi.  After a brave fight, she finally succumbed to her injuries and died of multiple organ failure, just 3-days after being flown to Singapore to be treated in a multi-specialty hospital. She has been aptly named ‘Nirbhaya’ by the Indian media in deference to Indian laws prohibiting the naming of a rape victim (more about this later).
Since the day the incident came to light (Dec 17, 2012) there has been non-stop local and international media coverage of her case and its aftermath. Youngsters, who have the highest stake in the country’s future, have taken to the streets to ensure that a slumbering government hears their plea for a safer environment for women. There is no doubt that the situation is pretty grim. Practically, every woman interviewed on various local and international channels, have mentioned that they have experienced some kind of sexual harassment- whether it is groping in crowded buses and trains or the discomfiture caused by the way men look at women. A telling comment that I heard was on an NDTV talk show where one agitated young lady from the audience put it bluntly:  “men usually talk to our chest not to our face”.  Every well known personality from across the spectrum of political parties to the film world and various religious leaders including the Dalai Lama have weighed in with their comments. Almost all (or at least 99%) of the comments fall under one of the following categories:
  • Comment on the sad state of Law and Order;
  • The utter failure of the Government;
  • 'foot in the mouth' comments from worthless politicians.  

In all the heat and dust generated by the spontaneous public anger and non-stop media coverage of the on-going protests, the whole incident is risking losing its potential to be a game-changer for Indian society and becoming just one more, albeit a well publicized one, crime with the usual players: perpetrators, victims, the police and prosecutors and the judicial system. Are we losing the momentum, to carry this fight to a logical conclusion of bringing about a radical change in our society?
This thought came to me when I read two interviews that have been published within the past two days. These are interview given to the media by two people directly involved in the incident.  One is Nirbhaya’s father and the other is her male companion who was with her during the incident and is possibly the only witness alive to the happenings inside that bus on that fateful night of Dec 16. What struck me, when I read these interviews, was that despite their personal anguish at the loss of someone close to them, they seem to have risen above it all and are able to see the bigger picture. Something that all of us who are protesting in the streets, blaming the government for inaction or just observing or writing about the case, do not seem to be seeing.  Let me elaborate.
The girl’s father, during his interview to London’s Mirror which features the interview in their Sunday People newspaper says, “I want the world to know my daughter's name is < her real name>” (The paper published her real name with the father’s consent.) In the interview he goes on to explain his hope that “revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived such attacks” (to come forward). He further says, in an apparent reference to the sense of shame and guilt attached to rape victims in India, “My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her”.
This is the spirit that we need in India. We need the awareness to recognize that a raped woman is the victim and not a criminal who needs to hide herself! It is something bad that happened to her, against her will and therefore there is nothing to be ashamed of! My point being that while rapist(s) may have raped the woman for 5 (or 30) minutes, society continues to add insult to injury by ostracizing such unfortunate victims for their entire life.  To the point that most families would prefer anonymity and to push things under the carpet rather than fight the case and help to bring the culprits to justice. Underlying this fear of society is a tacit admission that in some ways (dress, behavior, being out late etc) it is the woman’s, or her family’s, fault. As a society, we need to recognize that regardless of dress, behavior or when and with whom she goes out, a woman has a fundamental right to her dignity which must be respected and protected at all costs.  
Now for the lessons to be learnt from the second interview. Nirbhaya’s companion that night, a software engineer who was also badly beaten, stripped and thrown off the bus along with Nirbhaya . In his interview he brought out a very sad reminder of societal apathy towards others. I am quoting from the account of his interview given to Zee News as reported in the Mirror of London:
  • “Before throwing us off the bus, they tore off our clothes in order to destroy any evidence of the crime.
  • “We were without clothes. We tried to stop people passing by but no one stopped for about 25 minutes. 
  • “People were probably afraid they would become a witness to the crime.”
His words say it all – people are afraid of becoming a witness to a crime! Where are people’s hearts and souls these days! A huge negative mark for society!
But when I read the full transcript of this interview in other Indian Media he pointed out another weak point in our after-care for victims of crime. When the police did finally arrive, they were apparently bickering for 30-40 minutes as to which jurisdiction the case should fall under! And all the time, the Nirbhaya was bleeding! Maybe, just maybe, had those 30-40 minutes not been lost, she could have been saved! And when the ambulance did arrive, the cops were apparently reluctant to spoil their clothes and he had to carry his friend into the ambulance.
Ultimately the men who committed the heinous crime will be tried and punished as per the law. But what do we do about the apathy and insensitivity of society? That thought makes me despair. And hang my head in shame.