Incomplete Thoughts on Secrecy and Silence (Mostly Reminders for Myself)

We don’t have many secrets these days nor do we keep them, our own or others.  We should. Secrecy is a spiritual discipline, a key companion to humility and truth telling and prayer.  Jesus kept secrets and taught his disciples to do the same.  Matthew 6:1-21 concerns the keeping of secrets, the doing of things in secret.  Prayer, fasting, alms should all be secret more often than not.  The kind of wealth we accumulate should be the kind that can be kept secret (there is no room for status symbols in the kingdom of God).  Secrecy is opposed to spectacle more than openness.

The keeping of secrets is different from privacy.  We like privacy in our culture, we claim it as a right.  Privacy is the creation of space around our own domains of information, but a secret is, as Jesus taught, a thing that is not revealed completely to ourselves.  A secret is something we do without self-consciousness–a good done without cameras, a thought unblogged, a success not posted for the little pleasure of a hundred Facebook likes.

It is hard to keep secrets in an age when our information has all become social.  Just the keeping of a booklist via a program like Goodreads can suddenly become a kind of disclosure that leads to pride.  I find myself wanting to post the cool and impressive reading I’ve done.  The mundane or “should have read long ago” aren’t as easy to include in my lists.  Of course this is the dark side of a good thing.  I enjoy seeing what friends are reading, I want to get recommendations of books I’d like.  But often I wonder if perhaps I should just keep my reading to myself.

Several years ago I read Clifford Williams excellent book Singleness of Heart: Restoring the Divided Soul.  One of the key teachings of that book is how to pay attention to our internal dialogues.  I’ve been trying this out in learning to keep secrets.  For instance if I want to reveal something about myself, particularly in social media, what are the internal dialogues I have about such a disclosure? Do I want to share it because I am proud, because I want to elicit a certain reaction?  What kind of reaction am I trying to get?

In a world where I can go in and read the metrics on my blog posts, see how many people read it and from where, clicks can become an obsession.  The temptation can be to write on things that will get clicks rather than things that matter (the two often diverge).  Outrage at some strawman sells (Zach Hoag had an excellent post on this).  Some celebrity tie in gets clicks.  This comes at the expense of reflection, time spent wrestling with an idea (I read more books than blogs these days).

This is not to say that social media or blogs don’t have their place.  Obviously I’m writing this on a blog and these thoughts wouldn’t be appropriate for another space.  What I’m trying to say is that in the deluge of disclosures about ourselves–our lives, our thoughts, our successes (and rarely our failures)–we should be careful; we should perhaps keep more to ourselves than the current culture of the internet encourages.  If we do this then one day a word might break from our silence and it will mean something. Until then hit delete, backspace, wait and then say what cannot be kept to yourself after all the silence.  Let the next “outrage of the day” have a week before you add your voice.  Only your pride and self-righteous outrage (or if you’re a media pro, your money) will suffer.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.


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