Wednesday, January 16, 2013


All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.  
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In a world that is virtually awash in scandal and sensationalism, the mere suggestion that a person has "a secret life" can often lead to inferences of behavior that is either immoral, illegal, or otherwise inappropriate.  I am inclined to agree with Marquez, however, that everyone, to one degree or another, has a part of his or her life that may properly be described as "secret."  It seems to me that a secret life is just another room in each individual's house of reality.

As poet Stephen Dunn recognizes, however, we should remember that the secret chambers of our individual lives are often in the service of our highest ideals. It is in secrecy that we restrain judgments and opinions that might otherwise hurt others; it is in secrecy that we protect the confidences that we hold in trust; and it is in secrecy that we encounter "the shadow" side of ourselves, as Jung called it, and then do the hard work necessary to become what the world needs most—fully integrated human beings.

A Secret Life

by Stephen Dunn

                                           Why you need to have one
                                           is not much more mysterious than 
                                           why you don't say what you think
                                           at the birth of an ugly baby.
                                           Or, you've just made love
                                           and feel you'd rather have been
                                           in a dark booth where your partner
                                           was nodding, whispering yes, yes,
                                           you're brilliant.  The secret life 
                                           begins early, is kept alive
                                           by all that's unpopular 
                                           in you, all that you know
                                           a Baptist, say, or some other
                                           accountant would object to.
                                           It becomes what you'd most protect
                                           if the government said you can protect
                                           one thing, all else is ours.
                                           When you write late at night
                                           it's like a small fire
                                           in a clearing, it's what
                                           radiates and what can hurt
                                           if you get too close to it.
                                           It's why your silence is a kind of truth.
                                           Even when you speak to your best friend,
                                           the one who'll never betray you,
                                           you always leave out one thing;
                                           a secret life is that important.

Poem by Stephen Dunn from Landscape at the End of the Century (W.W. Norton and Company).


  1. I remember being taught a matrix when studying psychology which could be summarised thus (it has a name which I forget):

    There is the part of me others see and I don't.
    There is the part of me I see and others see.
    There is the part of me that I see and others don't.
    There is the part of me that is invisible both to me and to everyone else.

    The third, secret part of us is interesting in that it never by definition gets discussed with anyone so perhaps we harbour all kinds of illusions and misapprehensions which would quickly dismiss or modify if we subjected them to the scrutiny of disclosure.

    As for the fourth, the "secret secret" part - consciousness is very good at creating the illusion that we "know" ourselves from moment to moment when actually all kinds of unconsciously-stored data is uncontrollably nudging our consciousness all the time, affecting our perceptions and judgements (and, I suppose, affecting the composition of the "four parts").

    And, of course, since there's a part of us that others can see can't, we can never be wholly sure what's a secret part of us and what is not.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, DOMINIC! That four-point matrix nails it! And I agree with you that we harbor myriad illusions and misapprehensions that would probably dissipate if we exposed them to the light of day. You are also on target in reminding us that we are still under an illusion when we think we totally know ourselves.

  3. Oh, indeed - I always leave out "one thing." The secret is the best and the worst.

  4. PS An amazing photo you chose to go with this post.

  5. Indeed, BARB. Leaving out that one thing may be the art of discretion.

  6. Thanks, BARB. I took that photo in D.C. in the tunnel of the underground moving walkway that connects the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art with the main building.

  7. I love this sentence: It seems to me that a secret life is just another room in each individual's house of reality.

    Indeed, we are many people in many rooms. Sometimes in my secret room I'm gloomy, sometimes I'm giddy, sometimes the room is a meadow and sometimes something close.

    As writers and bloggers and people leaving traces in the world (in other words, all of us) there is a quivering gap between our parts - yes, sometimes integrated closely, but other times they look at each other like strangers. Who gets to meet the press today?

    The Dunn poem is a keeper! Gosh, you come up with such good stuff!

    Also, thanks to Dominic for that nifty matrix.

    Wendy (still can't get my name to show up at top?)

  8. Thanks for this, and that evocative photo to go with it. I also appreciate Dominic's matrix!

    This makes me want to use the Serenity Prayer as a prompt and revise for this post:

    God, grant me the strength to be silent with my opinion when it would only hurt,
    The courage to speak the truth that needs to be said,
    And wisdom to know the difference.

  9. I agree George - all of us have secrets that are best left untold for various reasons. I think Dom has put it well.

  10. Thanks, WENDY. It's true that there are often conflicting parts of our selves being revealed simultaneously. For perfectly good reasons, e.g., the welfare of others, we may appear to be above the fray at any given moment, yet within that secret place which is no less a part of our reality, there is stress and turmoil. And, of course, it can work in reverse. I am often able to find myself at peace within, while my external environment is racked with chaos. Your words say it best. There is indeed a "quivering gap between our parts," and they often "look at each other like strangers." As I noted in the post, however, we all do the slow work of trying to integrate the parts.

  11. RUTH, I think your revised Serenity Prayer captures perfectly the delicate balance which all of us, consciously or unconsciously, seek. As with the original Serenity Prayer, however, the difficult part if the last line—having the wisdom to know when to speak the truth and when to remain silent.

  12. I quite agree, PAT. I think Dominic has beautifully summarized the four dimensions of every personality. Is it any wonder that we have such difficulty trying to simplify our lives?

  13. I love the poetry of Stephen Dunn, especially this one. The farther into life I go, the more I realize how vital a "secret life" is to our process of becoming. "Another room in each individual's house of reality." Very nicely said. I really love this post. I've been giving more thought to this very idea. Nice to see it reflected here in your own well-chosen words, and those of the poet.

  14. Thanks, TERESA. I also greatly admire Stephen Dunn's poetry. He seems to take on truths that others are often reluctant to acknowledge.