Our Not-So-Secret Lives

Some inward examination could do us good

It’s said the holiday season is a time for giving and sharing—The Harvard Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) seems to have taken that to heart. At least, they’re sharing secrets.

On a Friday night earlier this month, the student group sponsored a gathering entitled “Confessions.” The Crimson reported that at this powwow, which was attended by around 75 people, students were encouraged to confess their weaknesses publicly to the rest of the audience. One Harvard senior confessed he was addicted to pornography and had a pattern of objectifying women as a result. Another undergraduate revealed she’d contemplated suicide in the past. Still another student spoke openly about her longstanding hatred for her father.

It is not altogether clear what made these students share these deep secrets—perhaps it was the bleakness of the winter weather or the pressure of papers and exams. Nor is it clear why the HRCF decided to host such an event (President Chardaie Charlemagne ’08 did not return my requests for comment). Certainly, the notion of confessing secrets is not a new one. Public confession has existed for centuries, in a range of cultural traditions, though in recent years, society’s penchant for it has really picked up steam.

In the new millennium, for instance, cyberspace has provided an outlet for confession. Not only have things like blogs and online diaries become popular, there exist sites whose express purpose is confession. The website became well known earlier in the decade for publishing postcards from people confessing deep secrets. Yet PostSecret provides the option for the public confession to be anonymous—in other words, confessions with neither feedback nor consequences—and a major goal of the site is to foster online attention to artwork. The postcards featured are visually interesting, and they are not all weighty in their confessions (at least one hopes not). Although some of the postcards on the site address serious issues like rape and homosexuality and heartbreak, others are light-hearted—One posted recently reveals one person’s fear that his neighbor’s dog is a white supremacist.

HRCF’s event was not intended to have entertainment or artistic value, and yet its aim was something rather outside the Christian norm, reflecting the group’s tendency toward secular therapy and a culture of sharing. The notion of public confession is somewhat counter to Christian doctrine: Although the Bible does tell Christians to seek spiritual accountability through the confession of sins, the command is a call for confession to God—or for Catholics, privately to a priest—rather than in public (this is stated quite explicitly in the Book of John).

HRCF’s decision to host this event is a divergence from that tradition, and it signifies something about us all, Christians or otherwise. We are of an age of mental health awareness (an awareness which is ultimately good), self-help books, and, most notably, a consensus that sharing and talking is helpful to those seeking atonement for sins or relief for sorrow.

You’d think that deep inward prayer would be the gig HRCF would get behind—the fact that it doesn’t points to the degree to which even religion is being made over by the modern imperative to “talk things out.” This was made clear at the end of “Confessions,” when HRCF chaplain Christine Y. Teng ’04 encouraged students to take part in a demonstration in which they burned pieces of paper with secrets. “We’ve been able to step into the light together, haven’t we?” Teng told the audience, adding that the light was “a warm glow.” Teng’s intentions were benevolent, of course. We all get lonely, things fall apart, and sometimes, everything seems lost. If we can find a warm glow, we should bask in it.

Yet there is something tragic in all of this: the terrible, consuming misconception that this “warm glow” can be found in endless hours of public secret-sharing. Could it be, as sufferers hope, that public confession or sharing will free us from the burdens we’ve been carrying or from our inability to assume responsibility for those burdens? Perhaps, but this runs the risk of having no effect but self-flagellation. Then, we are as lost as we were when we began: personal problems and matters of inner-turmoil are addressed only superficially and are not lastingly resolved. If the Christians or other members of organized religions are trapped in this cycle of psychobabble, then there isn’t much hope for anyone else.

Events like “Confessions”—and moreover, our modern fixation with openness and dialogue—may hurt us more than heal us. Our impulse is to discuss, discuss, and discuss some more so that we may rationalize and reason. But sometimes coping with a misery entails quietness and inner reflection. And of course, there is the truth that so few wish to recognize: Sometimes, there is no warm glow, and the best we can hope for is clarity within ourselves.

Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.