(c) Doug Meredith and The Gathering, UCC; All Rights Reserved
I was emotionally and physically abused when growing up
Jill and I just got done filing for bankruptcy
My parents did, too
My aunt was sexually abused by my grandfather as a child
My other grandfather is bipolar
Two of my cousins were sexually abused by their father
If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable right now, that’s the point. Everything I’ve just told you are secrets. Secrets that I’ve kept, secrets that were kept from me, and things that I’m still sometimes tempted to keep a secret.
It’s a powerful temptation, the urge towards secrecy, and it comes from many places all around. The need to seem better than we are. The shame of failure. The pain of past memories weighing down on us. Fear of rejection and ostracism. The list is endless.
We’re taught young about how to make and hold secrets, sometimes without any conscious adult prompting. We’re shown that we embarrass our parents when we say what we really think about grandma’s turkey at Thanksgiving. We’re not supposed to snitch on our friends. We’re supposed to pretend that we like the school bully during the class play.
It seems to me that half of the social skills we’re taught in school are how to lie through a smile and hold our secrets close. I’d imagine everyone here felt or saw the results when an embarrassing secret got out. What happened when someone found out that the nerdy girl in school had a crush on the popular boy? Or even worse, the popular girl?
Ridicule. Isolation. Emotional and physical pain. The “best” kids, if I can even use that term, learn secrecy quick. They learn how to fake what they’re supposed to be feeling or doing instead of what they really want to do. The girl who flunks a math test so that the boys don’t think she’s too smart learned secrets early and well. And most of the time she’s rewarded for it: friends, social acceptance, understanding about how “math is so haaard”.
Jill uses a phrase from her early childhood education days: logical consequences. Kids understand logical consequences. If I do this, then that happens. What logical consequences are being taught inadvertently in this scenario?
Be what you’re supposed to be. Say what you’re supposed to say. Do what you’re supposed to do. Keep everything else a secret.
Not all secrets are bad, of course. Buying a present for somebody you love and surprising them with it can be great.
Jill likes to tell the story about how I proposed to her, although that little secret plan had some hiccups. Surprise birthday parties? Well I don’t go in for that, but other people do! Surprises are secrets, but they’re secrets of timing: waiting for the moment you picked out to disclose them, hopefully providing an unexpected moment of joy to the receiver.
On the other side of the coin, what about our white lies and withholding? Telling somebody they look nice when you don’t mean it? Thinking somebody is making a mistake, but letting them go on anyway? Saying “fine” when someone asks “how’re you doing?” on the worst day of your life?
They’re so tempting. They make it so easy to get through our social lives without getting bogged down, make us feel like we’re helping out by not making waves. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not caring enough about the person or situation.
Whatever the reason, they’re little cop-outs. I’m guilty of them too, but we shouldn’t pretend they’re for the other person’s benefit. Even if the other person wants our lie, wants us to keep our true opinion a secret, it’s of no benefit to them to go along. Why would we encourage others to walk through the world half-blind to what others are thinking? To ways in which they could be more the person they want to be?
What we should be taught, what we should be teaching our children, isn’t how to keep what they’re feeling a secret. It’s how to tell a truth. What we truly think can cause pain, can be hurtful to hear. The truth is not always a comfortable panacea, nor easy to find a way to share.
A moral person doesn’t succumb to lazy temptation, though. We find a way to tell truth with as little pain as possible. When a friend asks how they look, we don’t say “you look like crap run over by a semi and then set on fire!”. We might instead do the old trick of compliment, constructive criticism, compliment. “Those pants look wonderful! Maybe a blue shirt would look better, though? It’d show off how much you’ve been exercising.”
That’s a flip example, of course. The bigger the painful truth, the harder it can be to find a gentle way to talk about it. Nobody said the high road was easy, though. That’s why it’s called the high road.
Let me give an example that we’ll all run into. A hypothetical friend of mine is dating someone I don’t really like or trust. Hopefully, being a paragon of virtue as I am, I’ve got tangible reasons to be concerned. Maybe I’ve got another friend who dated said person in the past and talked about their horrible temper. Maybe they made a pass at me while my friend wasn’t around.
Either way, I can either keep it a secret or tell my friend. If I keep it a secret and something bad happens, it’s at least partially my fault. How could my friend have protected themselves without the information I kept from them? If nothing bad happens, all well and good right? Well sure, on the outside. But it’s a dangerous game I’m playing internally, deciding that I know the situation better than my friend. One day I’m gonna be wrong, and it won’t be my life alone that’s hurt by my decision.
There’s a point to be made here: the truth is just the truth. It’s information we can disclose or keep. Plenty of people fall into the trap of sharing truth with the expectation that the other person will do the same thing with it that the teller would’ve. That’s no less presumptuous than withholding truth. In both cases, I’ve decided that I know what’s best for you better than you do. Sometimes, very rarely, that might be true. Mostly it’s bullshit.
We don’t know most of each other half as well as we like to assume. Maybe my friend’s new beau went through years of anger management therapy and was upfront with them about it. Maybe he or she made a pass at me because it’s an open relationship. Maybe, in the end, I’m never going to have all the facts. All I’m required to do as a truth teller is speak what I know. All I might do as a friend is be supportive in whatever they decide needs to happen next. If they want my advice, I’ll know.
As a person, my only requirements are open eyes, an open mouth, an open mind, and an open heart. Open eyes to see my truth. An open mouth to speak it. An open mind to understand the truths of others. And an open heart to accept their decisions, even when they would not be my own.
Even more fraught and difficult than sharing truths with one another can be sharing them with ourselves. Self-deception is no more or less than trying to convince oneself that a secret doesn’t even exist. We’re good at it. If we learn to keep our truths to ourselves in 1st grade, we’re taught self-deception by the 5th. We like our supposed friends even though they pick on us and diminish us every day. We’re really happy with the boyfriend or girlfriend who puts us down or shoves us in a box that’s comfortable for them. I’m happy. Really. I swear.
Why am I happy? Because… aren’t I supposed to be? So I must be happy, despite the gut-wrenching fear or anger that I feel. What are my emotions next to what I’m supposed to be feeling? I must just be broken a little bit. I’ll just ignore them. And so, caught up in supposed to’s and shoulds, we let the lies of the world leak into our own morality and reality. We diminish what our hearts tell us as illogical or irrational, unworthy of notice. We try to find our path using another’s moral compass, which never works to keep us on our own true North no matter how well-intentioned.
Mark my words: if we never understand and value our emotions and instincts for the value they provide, we will never arrive at a place of lasting happiness. We will forever be led astray by the demands of a world who wish us to change a little bit here, compromise a little bit there, and then tries to convince us that it was all our idea. The truth of who we are will vanish in the mists.
How many gay people have been led astray by self-deception? How many were convinced that they couldn’t be gay because, well, good people weren’t gay. How many got married because they weren’t gay, dammit! How many people stayed in a marriage of mutual anger and mistrust because they really love me deep down? How many lives were left in wreckage when they hit the cold, hard icebergs of truth, far off course from where they wanted to be and feeling desperately alone? Deception is damaging, and self-deception no less so just because we’ve convinced ourselves, too
I’ve brought a couple other concepts into this sermon: truth and lies. They’re relevant because of this: all lies create secrets of the truth. Yet the most powerfully secret is not the one covered by the lie, but the one covered by stifling silence.
You know the secret I’m referencing. It’s what we don’t talk about, or what the children don’t need to know, or even worse too revolting to put words around. It’s judgmental silence, a deliberate omission, the censorship marker across the pages of memory.
LGBT people know it all too well. It’s all the times you’re not told about Oscar Wilde’s persecution when reading “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in Lit class, while you’re given full account of Lord Byron’s (straight) romances. It’s the yawning chasm where LGBT relationships should be on television. In families, it’s the places where you’re not asked how your partner is doing. Thankfully these moments are becoming less common in our society as a whole, because they’re worse than lies.
Lies tell you that you’re wrong. Judgmental silence tells you that you shouldn’t exist. Lies tell you a path is wrong. Silence blocks the fact that the path is even there. Lies stab you in the heart. Silence demands that you stab yourself. The truth can destroy a lie simply by existing. Silence swallows a truth, leaving only ignorance.
The deafening silence on LGBT issues in some communities is unforgivable, damaging many people for their entire lives, stunting them or driving them to suicide. But what about a more common reason?
I mentioned in the beginning of my sermon that my aunt was sexually abused by her father while a child. The evils perpetuated on her were abetted by the deafening silence of a mother who knew, neighbors who probably suspected, and a society that wouldn’t believe even if they were told.
My aunt, who I greatly respect, had a life filled with those silences. She got pregnant in high school and was forced to give birth in a convent, then shipped home to pretend like nothing had happened. She married a physically abusive man who started sexually abusing her daughters.
I respect her for what happened next: she filed for divorce and a restraining order, supported her children through custody and criminal proceedings that lasted for years, and made a firm decision to break the cycle of abuse.
Today her daughters call Charlene “the queen of over-sharing”, because she knows what silence can do and made a personal decision to avoid it whenever possible. It’s only through her that I actually learned any of this. My father and uncle maintain their absolute silence to this day.
But I only learned because I sought the information out, because I knew that something was behind so much of the crazy family dysfunctions I grew up experiencing. Which is a silence that even my aunt, a woman of great intent and stubbornness, has fallen into. My father inherited it as the silence of “what good would it do?” My aunt knows it as the silence of “best if it dies with me”. Either way it’s the most well-intentioned silence in the world. From scalp to shoe sole, two good people not saying something for what they believe are good reasons. It calls out to us in the siren voice of “putting the bad behind”.
The voice is wrong.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana made it a cliché. The truth at the center of it remains no matter how often it’s repeated. Abuse begets abusers, victims and cycle-breakers. Abusers and victims require silence to perpetrate the cycle. Cycle-breakers end the silence. My aunt was a cycle-breaker. I’m sure if she thought one of her family was being sexually abused, Charlene would’ve charged in and done her level best to end it. In that limited scope, she was strong.
But my life is evidence of the dangers in even complacent silence. Every one of her siblings knew they had been wounded, so they desperately tried to create a happy, happy, HAPPY family where their kids wouldn’t have to deal with that. Smiles that looked like grimaces, Christmas photos carefully orchestrated, and pleasant chatter about nothing consequential filled my childhood.
They were another form of silence trying to construct perfection (or at least eccentricity) over the secret of deep pain. And because I grew up believing that my family didn’t experience deep pain and suffering, what was I supposed to think the time my brother choked me until I passed out? When he kicked in my bedroom door? When he threatened to beat my head in with a golf club? When my parents stood by powerless? Was I supposed to believe that others would understand? Or that myself and my immediate family were freaks and aberrations who had to suffer together, alone?
I know now what message my extended family wanted to send, but the desperate perfection they broadcast into my brain left no room for moments of horrid, embarrassingly personal pain. So rather than hurt that image that we all so obviously cared deeply about, I hurt myself. I crippled myself emotionally in ways that I’m still coming to terms with.
I say this not for sympathy, but as a warning. Was I sexually abused? No. Was another cousin, who currently struggles with alcohol and drug addictions? Not to my knowledge. Would the story of what happened to our aunt have done us any direct good? Not exactly.
But by not sharing, by having this illusion wrapped around us for our own good, we the damaged ones were made the freaks in our family. We both would’ve been better-served to have seen at least some of the wounds secreted in the people who wanted to be there to support us. We didn’t need paragons on a pedestal. We needed human adults who had suffered and survived. We needed role models, not demi-gods.
Even if your story isn’t so dramatic, the world needs it. If your nephew is “too young” to know that his uncle or aunt is gay, you’re denying them a chance to see a human being worthy of respect.
If your grandfather is “too old” to know about your partner, then he’ll never know how much joy you’ve managed to find. If you pooped your pants in grade school, that’s even a story someone could benefit from hearing.
Sharing your true self, flaws and all, invites the same from those around you. Offering up your own pain can show you’re not afraid for others to show theirs.
If you talk to a granddaughter about healthy relationships and disclose the significant other who beat you up in college, you’re not just opening an avenue of trust for her to talk to you about where a black eye really came from.
You’re showing her that you’re not uncomfortable with hard conversations. You’re building a relationship of trust where she can disclose that she’s pregnant, or a lesbian, or would prefer to be called Kyle. Secrets are designed to put us up in the shrine of who we think we should be, untouchable and utterly useless in the real world. Truths put us back down on the ground, dirty and hurt humans who strive to be better but fall on our faces. Touchable to others. Sometimes petty, often preoccupied and distracted, but also compassionate, empathetic, and striving creatures who are more Christlike than any marble statue could hope to be.
Yet here we mostly sit in silent, inscrutable secrecy. And not without reason. Even when we decide to share of ourselves, the world makes it desperately difficult. Society is just so damn polite about secrets. It begs you to stop talking with every uncomfortable glance away. Every shifting in a chair. Every cough. Yes, even in this room. Even in a Gathering of people who say we desire open and honest dialogue. I’ve been complicit in it as much as anybody else. How many times have we all created a space that screams “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!”
And, even worse, how many times have you or someone you loved shared a painful secret only to have all your listeners suffer amnesia? It’s the infamous long pause between “I was raped two years ago” and “Wasn’t that movie we saw yesterday just great?” We’re messing with the script and, just like in a play, society is desperately granting us every permission to get back on dialogue. Because ad libbing and being fully present with another human is hard.
It would be deeply ironic if I kept secret a time when we as a church did this, because it might make us a little uncomfortable. And I hope everyone here can accept this story in the spirit of understanding how far each and every one of us has to go. A few weeks ago, Doug Slagle started his sermon series on money with a powerful discussion of the moral and ethical value of wealth.
In the comments afterward, Ken Cunningham spoke tearfully and at length about how much he and his husband John were suffering from the struggle of keeping their business and personal lives afloat. I was in the room that day and the discomfort was so thick you could’ve chiseled in it.
To my eyes, it seemed as though the energy was trying to squeeze the poor man’s lips shut. And when Ken, a man who stays til the bitter end of every coffee hour, fled immediately after the service, how many of us went in private to try and ease his obvious sorrow? And how many of us simply thought we were doing him a favor if we never brought it up again?
I don’t know. I simply ask you to reflect on what, if anything, you were feeling in that moment. And to reflect on the power our social and emotional pressure can bring to bear.
The world does no favors for those who would violate the comforts of secrecy. It will push every one of us to believe that we should really “wait for the right time” which never comes. When is there ever going to be a right time for sharing awkward, even horrible, moments with each other? The present moment is the rightest time we’re ever going to find to tell the powerful truths that matter most for us to say and others to hear.
The world will give little thanks. There will be very few pats on the back for saying what others wish us to omit. That’s not the point. If you’re waiting for the world to give you a medal, you won’t have lived a life worthy of one. We have it in our hands and on our tongues to rise above the rules of shame and reach out to our better angels.
By speaking your secrets and freeing your truths, bonds of genuine trust can be formed to last the years. By sitting determined in the moment when someone else shares their hard pains, the moments when there is no Miss Manners reply, by sitting in those moments with a spirit of deep love, respect and compassion, we reward bravery. We leave open the door to more honest pain and discomfort, even anger, but also to support, love, euphoria and revelation towards each other.
And that’s really the end point of sharing and receiving secrets, I suppose. A world where no one shares their true reality is a world where we never grow. A world where we stay within the comfortable borders is not a world. It’s a prison. A zoo. A world where we cannot accept the secrets of others is a world where we set limits on how close others can really get. We hedge them into the comfortable place where we now understand them, blocking ourselves from the unexpected joys and lovely uniqueness that’s really out there, content with our shallow, gray understanding of a technicolor world.
I end my little sermon with the challenge I ask the world to give back to me every day: to open the book of our lives, hearts and minds and read from them in bold, loving voices. Without edits or abridgments from shame or discomfort. Because each secret held inside diminishes the richness in our souls, turning us further into craven caricatures that learn nothing, help no one. And each truth let out deepens our lives, teaches us where to strive, and invites the world to walk a little easier on our path, for the witness of another mere human who made it before.
As is customary, I’d like to break the silence now and ask you to share your truths.
Creator and ultimate truth, we ask you to help us connect with each other in bonds of truth and love. We pray that you open our hearts to hear the secrets that the world would share with us, and soften the hearts of others to understand our own. We hope that by such examples, wounds in ourselves, our communities and our planet may be healed, and peace may be found. To you we lift up this prayer, and the prayers to follow.