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Forgive us our secrets

People keep secrets for all kinds of reasons, even Unitarian Universalists.
By Doug Muder
7.21.08

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Climbing the museum’s spiral staircase reminds me of those rituals designed to shorten a Catholic’s time in Purgatory. A rising series of postcards hangs from the staircase’s outer wall. On each card someone has written a secret thought, some simple statement that, for one reason or another, the writer has kept bottled up until now. I read a card, meditate briefly on its secret and that secret’s anonymous owner, and then step up to the next stair.

As a child I used to walk in the garden and have conversations with God. Now I don’t believe in him anymore.

When I was a little girl, I thought that the Easter Bunny killed the Baby Jesus.

People keep secrets for all kinds of reasons, sometimes just to avoid embarrassment. But other thoughts stay bottled up because they are too raw and wrenching for polite conversation. Most of the cards are illustrated with drawings or photos or collages. This one shows a field of crosses from the genocide in Rwanda:

At night I scream at God for letting this happen.

The staircase is at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The cards come from the PostSecret Project by Frank Warren. In 2004, Warren started encouraging people to mail him their secrets anonymously on postcards. Since then, the overwhelming response he received has led to several books and one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. This exhibit, Revelations of Faith, collects secrets about religion.

No one has said anything that makes me feel better about the fact that we all die someday.

Step. Read. Meditate. Step.

For the first dozen cards, or maybe two dozen, I react to each one’s uniqueness. Who is this person? What singular circumstance caused him or her to keep this particular thought hidden, only to reveal it anonymously now?

I was so lonely I asked both GOD and SATAN to bring me someone. Now that you’re here, I don’t know which one to thank.

Eventually I start to have a collective response as well. I start looking for themes and commonalities. While a few cards mention Buddhism or Judaism, most reflect the God/Satan/Heaven/Hell cosmology of traditional Christianity.

Sometimes I’m afraid it was God who “punished” me with the depression I began to develop because I didn’t believe in him.

Even most of the non-believers seem to come from a Judeo-Christian background.

I’ve been an atheist for years but sometimes I miss church. Tell your God I said “hi”.

Many of the secrets refer to a you or a they. I suppose a secret is like a tango. It takes two—one who knows and someone else who can’t be allowed to know. Implicit in each secret is a question: What would those others think or do, if they found out?

I tried for so long to believe in their God.

As a UU, I have trouble identifying with some of the cards. My religious community welcomes people with doubts and disbeliefs, so thoughts like these wouldn’t have to stay secret:

I play piano in church, but I don’t believe in God.

Other cards confess sexual thoughts during church or about church members—as if no one else had such thoughts or would understand them, or as if God would be uniquely appalled to find such thoughts in His house. Belonging to a faith that views the body and its needs positively, I can easily imagine having the thought, but not the guilt that would turn it into a dark and powerful secret.

I am in the middle of such smug reflections on my religion and its openness when this card brings me up short:

I want to be a Unitarian Universalist, but I don’t know how God will take it.

God took it fine, I remember, but I worried about what my parents would think. When I published an article in a humanist journal, I didn’t show it to them, even though they might have been proud.

I guess I have religious secrets too.

So I retreat a few steps, and take a second look at those confessions of disbelief.

I am a Southern Baptist pastor’s wife. No one knows that I do not believe in God.

This time when I imagine the woman, I picture someone who once believed in God, and who didn’t lose that belief in a single flash. Every week she recited a creed, and by the time she realized she was lying she had already been doing it for a long, long time.

Why did I have trouble identifying with that? I too have a hard time confessing change. It’s not easy to say “That stuff I told you six months ago—the things we agreed about—it’s all nonsense. I don’t believe it anymore.”

How many people in my church, I wonder, might be bottling up something like this:

All my life I’ve thought there was no god. Last night I realized my beliefs might be changing, and I don’t know what to do with that.

Or maybe, in a community of doubters, certainty could be hard to confess:

I found enlightenment, but I never tell anyone, because it’s so simple they would never believe me.

Sometimes the persistence of faith can be as unwelcome and disturbing as its loss. It’s not hard to imagine a UU sending this card:

I don’t want to believe in God anymore, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop.

Humbled, I resolve to try harder to empathize. And then I start climbing the staircase again. Step. Read. Meditate. Step. Some of the secrets are so universal that my resolution is easy to keep.

Forgiving myself is proving to be nearly impossible.

I’m frustrated because I can’t see life’s big picture.

And some are so human that it’s easy to bridge the difference in our theologies.

I haven’t believed in God since you told me you were divorcing Dad.

I hate it when people say prayer works, because it didn’t when I was begging God to save my baby’s life.

Some are all the more disturbing because the specifics have been left to my imagination.

If there was a god, he would make it stop.

And some are all too easy to picture.

Every time my mother calls, she’d ask me if I pray. Whenever I lie and say YES, I’d die a little. But I know if I tell her the truth she’d die a little.

At the top of the staircase, the end of the exhibit, I once again try to generalize. What makes these postcards, these little blips of anonymous communication, so powerful?

Warren has done a good job of tapping just the right stratum of guilt. The confessions in the exhibit, in the books, and on his blog are not the big, awful secrets that few people have. No murders. And the church people who are faking their faith seem genuinely conflicted about it. No sociopaths are bragging about the scams they get away with or gloating over the suckers who believe in them.

The single most striking thing about the secrets is how forgivable they are. The card-writers aren’t villains. They’re just people who feel like hypocrites because they can’t embrace social roles that they also can’t renounce.

Just like everybody else.

As I leave the museum, I pass a mailbox made of plastic wrap and tape, and a table with post cards and pens. I don’t leave a secret behind, but I could.

It’s hard to imagine a person who couldn’t. Because social roles are simple and humans are complicated. None of us are always exactly the people we want others to count on us being. We don’t love our loved ones 24/7. The beliefs that define our identities: We don’t believe them every waking moment. But we don’t want to be unreliable, we don’t want to be confusing, and it feels selfish to make others adjust their simple social roles to compensate for our complexity.

So, like the pastor’s wife reciting her creed, we fake it. You think something and don’t say it, because you know that tomorrow your thought will be gone, but the memory of your words will linger. Such little hypocrisies let us live together, and are nothing to be ashamed of.

But once in a while, tomorrow comes and the out-of-character thoughts aren’t gone. Weeks and months go by, and at some point you realize that this isn’t a mood or a bad day or a fluctuation in your neurotransmitters. This is the New You.

And then you have a choice: The New You can stay secret or not. You can continue on with thinking one thing and saying another, or you can tell people: “This is me now. This is who I am.”

And maybe they would understand.

That hope, I think, is the ultimate message of the PostSecret Project. You look at postcard after postcard, secret after secret, and you think: “I could understand that. I could forgive that.” Then you start imagining your own secret hanging anonymously there on the wall, passed by strangers who understand and forgive.

And then you start to wonder about The People Who Aren’t Supposed To Know. Are they so different from you, so different from the strangers you just imagined?

Maybe, you start to think, you’ve been selling them short.

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