Last evening, I talked with a friend about the things that have been going on in the country in the last few weeks. More specifically, we talked about people’s reactions. We were dismayed. Almost as soon as the news is out, the blame and shame begin. Then slowly, the facts come to light—but only after the public harm has been done. A film star commits suicide—‘I didn’t know he was in such pain,’ or ‘If he had talked to me, I could have told him…’ (Neither commentator actually seemed to know the individual in question.) A child is snatched by an alligator, or falls into a gorilla pit. Someone takes an automatic weapon into a nightclub and kills a staggering number of people—almost as many as he injured. After the initial news come the opinions. Anyone can, and does, speak out.
Everyone has secrets. I think we all know that. In this day and age, having a secret is both a barrier and an invitation—people want to know all about you, especially what you don’t want them to know. What they don’t know, they try very hard to discover. Your secrets, they think, belong to them.
I’ve been living in a motel for five months—there is no way to avoid the secrets of other people. The charming, lovely people you see coming into Reception are the same lusty, angry, tormented people you hear behind closed doors as you walk down the corridor. I’m not a snoop—I really don’t want to know a lot of the things I know about people—but it’s impossible to be unaware of what happens. Of course we hear ‘the beast with two backs’ fairly often. But I also hear the man who rages at old ghosts—something to do with Hitler and the Holocaust. What very little I know about this man tells me he may well be justified. I also hear the couples arguing about love, about sex, about money. There’s the teenager talking back, or the Bohemian young woman in a room down the hall—a beauty in the corridor, a terror in her room. I don’t know who she fights with, because she’s in that room alone.
Although people are very protective of their secrets, some of them seem to like to protect them in public. Support pages for mental health, a variety of medical and social problems, are full of truly horrifying histories—abuse, rape, war, disaster. Abandonment and betrayal are common themes. You can easily learn the social difficulties of Crone’s Disease, fibromyalgia, and a host of conditions that are now known under very technical, initialized names (even though the conditions themselves may have been around for centuries). State social services, the federal government dispassionately complicate matters through bureaucratic indifference—you can read about the ravages, if you’re fortunate enough not to have to actually experience them.
Everyone has secrets, and many of them are nightmares. The public are unaware, but it doesn’t stop them from shaming and finding fault, even without intelligence (which I use in both senses of the word). The internet makes it simple—instant, anonymous communication with no accountability. There are even people who will use the most horrific events as the basis of distasteful, highly offensive jokes—they couldn’t be cruder. What’s the worst that will happen? Tsk tsk.
I saw a man this morning bow his head as a train sped past him. He explained he has an inner ear condition and rapid movement in his field of vision makes him dizzy. Not a terrible secret, unless you have to live with it. Some might have thought him odd. What about that woman who watches the television with the remote in her hand so she can hit ‘mute’ every time there’s screaming or arguing in a scene? PTSD, perhaps. Memories of domestic violence or rape—secrets that are selectively shared? That kid who has been taking drugs, to everyone’s surprise because he’s ‘such a nice boy’? Is he stupid? Maybe he’s trying to numb pain. At best it may postpone the ‘come to Jesus’ moment he fears, but it’s more than he can handle on his own. That actor or artist who committed suicide—is he a coward, or was the pain of living more than he could bear, and what was that pain?
It used to be my job to know people’s secrets. It helped me understand their behaviours and their choices. If I hadn’t known what I do know, I might have jumped to some damning conclusions, as others do. It’s very easy to judge, to clothe oneself in the mantel of protective self-righteousness, and to ignore the undeniable presence of ‘that which we do not know.’
There is a way to deal with this self-righteous annoyance. Tell people you don’t want to hear it, that it’s unacceptable or inappropriate. At the very least, shush them. A news reader wrote on her webpage about the recent tragedy of the child and the alligator in Florida. Many of the responses were critical and, to be blunt, opinionated to the point of ignorance. Someone made a damning remark about the parents, and the news reader responded, ‘how about we give the grieving family a little compassion right now, instead of placing blame?’ I say, ‘good for you!’
Where were the parents? How did he get that gun? What were all those people doing there? Why didn’t the government stop him? How could she be such an idiot? Who’s to blame? Someone must be at fault!
We don’t know, but we insist.
Paul TN Chapman
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