Two years ago, I decided I would no longer hold any secrets. I would be an open book.
Let me start by telling you what that isn’t. It doesn’t mean I word vomit everything that’s on my mind, even if I am criminally bad at hiding disdain. It doesn’t apply to things outside my personhood. Conversations with other people, proprietary information, and the content of some meetings at work often need to be closely guarded, for obvious reasons. Finally, it doesn’t mean that I go around tweeting embarrassing things about myself. It does mean that I require myself to be open to any question, and to answer them honestly. It means that I have to accept that question from anyone, close friend, stranger, or hostile reporter.
I’d like to say that I came to this decision out of some forceful moral compass that made me want to lead a purer life. There is some of that— a key part of my logic is that if I’m doing something I feel should be secret, I should either stop doing it or address the guilt complex. But mostly, I came to the decision at a young age because I realized I didn’t have a choice.
Everywhere you go, you are being tracked. The cell phone in your pocket records your daily commute, which bars you visit, who you talk to and what you tell them via text. The content of our google searches and the kinds of web pages we visit can help determine how you are likely to vote, your personality type, shopping habits, and sexual preference. A fairly cogent record of your life exists via social media posts. Finally, there are the cameras. Sure, there are the HD ones on phones, so ubiquitous you’re never sure when you’re being photographed, or even if your shirtless and drunk self might show up between the two faces of a selfie at your local fraternity party. But there are also the security monitors. If you live in a major city, count the number of cameras you pass on the way to work tomorrow. I promise you’ll be astounded at the number, and you’ll probably miss half of them. All this data is used to average you into behavioral statistics, profile you as a possible terrorist, predict the people you are likely to date and do business with, and, above all, figure out how to sell you more stuff.
I haven’t told you anything new here, and hopefully you spent a few minutes thinking about this when the Snowden leaks came out. Here’s the point: do you really think that you can hide your drug use, homosexuality, fear of spiders, or depression from the force of that much tracking? If you’ve got a secret, and a determined person wants to find it, they will. (See: Anonymous)
The only way to protect a reputation from the vice-addled hinterlands you might be tempted to explore is facing your actions head on, and being completely open about them when asked. While admittedly scary, this forces you to own your decisions. It gives you control over the timing and tone of disclosure. Most importantly, it allows you to disclose anything potentially embarrassing within the context of your larger life, and the lessons that action taught you. In short, you get to control the spin.
An example from my own life: I did drugs in high school. I mean, yeah, I smoked pot along with the rest of California, but I also dove into the club drug scene for the latter half of my senior year, going to raves on the weekends. It seemed a big fun adventure at the time: late night escapes and getting high to flashing lights and watching the sun go up as I crashed down. It was fun, and exceptionally stupid.
Now, fast forward two years; I’m a sophomore in college. I know that there has to be photos out there of me at some rave dancing with dilated pupils, probably wearing some candi and looking like a clown for the ages. I know I earned myself a reputation in my hometown as a minor rebel that your daughter should probably not date.
So I got on top of the problem, and wrote a letter to my community newspaper about why I chose to do drugs in high school, and how that might have been prevented. The question mark that hung over my personality with some local parents was cleared away (or their suspicions set in stone). So was a cloud over my head. I now get to advise parents whose kids are using drugs about what might be going through their heads, and how to approach the issue.
I do need to add, though, that the decision to hold no secrets is not a PR move. It’s a life choice, and though it may be forced by technology, it is ultimately an incredibly positive force on life. It forces me to consider my actions, because they will all be public, and confront my insecurities. Ultimately, a life without secrets is also the quickest path to friendship and a strong family. Secrets come in so many different forms–actions that make us feel guilty, desires, vices—but in any form they are the most persistent toxins of love. They separate us from those that are already close, and force us to build walls to defend against the encroachment of newcomers.
I’m not professing to be perfect at this practice. I think I’m far from that, largely because we often lie to ourselves, and those lies abscond truth. But I do try and get better, and my life tends to get better with it.
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