Where can you go with your secrets?

by Kristin on June 21, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Emilio Labrador

Last night Jason and I went to see the movie City Island. It’s the sort of family drama/comedy that you’ll love if you are a fan of films like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. (By the way, there are no spoilers here!)

As the plot summary suggests, City Island’s central theme is secrets, along with the lies used to cover them up:

The Rizzos, a family who doesn’t share their habits, aspirations, and careers with one another, find their delicate web of lies disturbed by the arrival of a young ex-con….

The ex-con, Tony, uncovers and stumbles upon a few secrets hidden by the four family members, but for the most part, he serves as a confessor. He is open, non-judgmental, and present, so the family members—especially the patriarch—seem eager to release their burdens. Secrets are eating their family alive, but no one can imagine baring their deepest longings and fears to one another. It seems so simple, right on the tips of their tongues, and yet so impossible.

God knows all: A relief or a discomfort?

When I was little, one of my biggest, mind-warping conundrums about God had to do with secrets. I wanted desperately to have secrets from God, even though I knew he could see everything I was doing and even thinking! Yet I still behaved as if maybe I could slip one by him. It’s like the mentality toddlers have when they play hide-and-seek—as long as I can’t see you, you can’t see me.

But Psalm 139 suggests otherwise:

1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

5 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

God perceives my thoughts from afar? I can never hide away from him? As a child, the concept didn’t exactly give me comfort. There was too much I didn’t want him to know!

Releasing that pressure valve

After years of keeping my own secrets, big and small, from a variety of people, crisis eventually pushed them to the surface. Counseling, anti-depressants, divorce—the jig was up. It was intense and far from pretty, but it was also such a relief! And it’s never over. Once you start living in that truth, you regularly face moments when you have to lay bare those old secrets to new people. It’s a difficult but powerful reminder, preventing you from ever wanting to keep secrets again.

Not surprisingly, the plot in the movie City Island culminated in a moment of intense, not-pretty (but pretty darn funny) crisis. The pressure builds the entire movie, keeping the audience cringing and silently rooting for truth, for release. And then it happens all at once, in a hilarious, absurd scene, on a street outside their house. You want to laugh and cry.

The agony of bearing witness

And for most of this scene, Tony is observing, while awkwardly handcuffed to a telephone pole. Maybe I shouldn’t go down this road, but I couldn’t help but see him, the ex-con,  as a Jesus figure. Toward the start of the movie he arrives on the scene, rescued from prison (where the jig is always up), only to be planted in the middle of this grotesque family portrait of the human condition—people who love and need each other but can’t reveal their hearts to one another.

Tony, like the audience, can see it all—the truth as well as the secrets, and the ways the lies hurt others while simultaneously consuming the hearts of the people telling them. It pains him beyond belief. This family, he sees, has something beautiful. They have love and each other, but they’ve built all these walls. It’s a voluntary prison even more maddening than the one Tony had been involuntarily locked in.

But the way out is blessedly within reach.

Can you imagine what Jesus thinks as he looks at us—our families, our communities, our walled off world—today? Will it take a crisis for us to find relief?

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  • Kirstin

    Wow. I love how your posts always give me so much to think about. And I’m putting “City Island” on the must-see list.

    Three reflections:

    1. What a great story about your child-self wanting to keep secrets from God. It sounds like you were maybe (without consciously realizing it) struggling with the conception of God that you had been presented with, trying to break through the God-as-uber-parent/teacher model in ways that might eventually lead you to an understanding of God-as-transcendent-limitless-being or God-as-comforter. It sounds like you got there in the end!

    2. Have you seen the movie “Wings of Desire”? The first twenty minutes are some of the most gorgeous film out there: it depicts “angels” in Berlin (late-80s-style, so the angels kind of look like pretentious Eurotrash, but nevermind…). They hover, they listen to peoples’ inner thoughts, they care, and even though the people they are listening to can’t seen them those people sometimes feel strengthened by their presence.

    3. One of the most profound religious moments from a Christian perspective that I’ve ever had came when my mother was dying. My aunt was looking after her in her home in Indiana (with the help of me and hospice and other relatives). A long and painful journey had brought her to that point. She had been living in England when her health suddenly deteriorated precipitously, and it became clear that her support network in England wouldn’t be sufficient. Besides, she really wanted to come home to the States to die. Her long-term partner was deeply resistant to her removal, but resistant in ways that revealed deep and irreconcilable problems in their patterns of interaction, so that as my mother’s mind was deteriorating (due to the spread of cancer in the brain), so was the relationship. The whole thing was just an enormous mess, and I spent a month in England helping my mother make the transition before she could return with me (and a medical escort) to the US.

    So there she was in the master bedroom at my aunt’s house, confined to bed, unable to communicate much or walk, taking morphine to control her pain, and trying to cope with being so dependent. One day the hospice chaplain (whom she liked very much) came to visit (turned out to be an old college friend of my uncles–in the smalll church-centered community where my relatives live, it seemed like everyone on the hospice team was connected to us by a million filaments of association). Anyway, he went back to the bedroom to talk to her and when he came back out to talk to me and my aunt he said something to the effect of, “I could see that Carol is sad and angry. I told her that God accepts us this way. He loves us no matter how much anger and hurt we bring to him.”

    I’m crying now remembering that moment. The chaplain had been able to see and recognize what none of us had wanted to admit: that even though returning to the US was what my mother wanted, it wasn’t the happy homecoming we all wanted it to be. Iit involved a wrenching parting for her and left her with a lot of pain that she didn’t have the energy or ability to address or talk through. She was dying with a lot of unfinished business, and she was a deeply articulate woman who felt her responsibilities keenly. When I went to sit with her again, the chaplains words had clearly given her peace.

    I had never quite grasped before the notion of a God who can accept us and love us just as we are, whatever our secrets and unspoken pain.

  • Trina

    It is difficult to be honest and release secrets as we are often faced with judgements and criticisms. Having a safe confessor certainly a comfort.
    The movie sounds great, did SO love Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.

  • http://frizzytalksinhersleep.blogspot.com Roxanne

    Keep no secrets. We, like that preoperation toddler, think that, because we’ve wrapped ourselves in our secrets, that this makes us invisible. Very little can grow in darkness.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Thanks, Kristin, for the Redbox recommendation and the reflections as well. Psalm 139 is perfect. John Eldridge says that Hollywood dreams the dreams, but still needs Josephs and Daniels to interpret them.

    And there’s such hope in your last line, “But the way out is blessedly within reach.” That feels like something Jesus would say.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kirstin, you’re very perceptive! I might not have even articulated it, but you’ve pretty much nailed my childhood understanding of God “as-uber-parent/teacher model.” I did need to break through that. Unfortunately, it took a good 20-30 years before any real progress was made! But here we are now. That’s what matters. Speaking of what matters, your story about what the hospice chaplain said to your mom says it all: God accepts us this way. Hurt, anger, all of it. What’s more, he loves us this way. Beautiful. That’s the way I want my kids to understand God. Thanks for sharing that experience. (Btw, yes! I have seen Wings of Desire. I’m a big Wim Wenders fan. :)

    Trina, that “safe confessor” does make a difference, doesn’t it? Meeting Jason felt a lot like that—like I could tell him anything and everything, and there would never be judgment, only more love.

    Roxanne, what a great metaphor—when we wrap ourselves in secrets, the sun can’t get through to warm us and help us grow. Thank you for that image.

    Ray, that’s a great quote from John Eldridge. Maybe it’s just the lens through which I view things, or maybe it’s just the nature of human narratives (or maybe that I was a lit major?), but I often feel like movies that are in no way explicitly spiritual have deeply spiritual themes.

  • http://www.rebeccasramsey.blogspot.com Becky Ramsey

    Now I must see that movie. Thanks!
    Keeping secrets requires so much emotional energy! The hiding, the worrying, the shame.
    So often in my life I’ve kept simple secrets, just to keep the peace, or avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It’s what people pleasers do, and it’s still unhealthy. In the past few years I’ve tried to stop doing that. To speak the truth and let the truth take care of itself. It always surprises me how good that feels–it really is like releasing the pressure valve. Maybe it’s part of loving and accepting myself as God loves and accepts me.

  • http://www.ejly.net ejly

    I’ve just come back from unraveling a web of secrets that my grandmother was keeping from her Dr – ugh.The more I know of secrets, the less I like them.

    @Kirstin – hello from Indiana, and thanks for sharing your story of your mother.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Becky, ah yes—sometimes we keep secrets to protect ourselves, and other times it’s much more about protecting others (or at least that’s how we’re rationalizing it). And you’re right about secrets (even simple ones) burning through so much emotional energy. I really like how you put this: “To speak the truth and let the truth take care of itself. … Maybe it’s part of loving and accepting myself as God loves and accepts me.”

    ejly, ugh, indeed. So sorry you’ve had to deal with that. So what is your take on who your grandmother was trying to protect through these secrets? And does that make a difference, or in the end do the secrets ultimately hurt everyone involved? (This is what I suspect, but I’m not completely certain.)

  • http://www.ejly.net ejly

    K – my grandmother was keeping her secrets out of modesty, embarrassment, a wish for health privacy, and perhaps some fear – and probably further more complex reasons too. None of which are bad motives, really – she was trying to protect herself. Does that make a difference? Yes, I suppose if her motives were nefarious I would be less sympathetic. Either way, her health was (is?) poor and it took all that I had to stabilize her, work on her mental state to return her to her normal self, get her situated for recovery… and I’m feeling very drained and troubled still by what I had to do, although I recognized it as necessary in my head my heart was burdened by it. Thanks for asking. I’m still processing, but I will be back later to read and process some religious moments.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ejly, it’s so interesting how we each have our own logic to back up what we need, what makes sense. But when it comes to secrets, the logic never seems to pan out in the end, does it? All the secrets we keep to “not trouble anyone” can end up being a great trouble, indeed—a huge mess to untangle. Thinking about you as you spend time in this place: “I’m feeling very drained and troubled still by what I had to do, although I recognized it as necessary in my head my heart was burdened by it.”

  • http://www.ejly.net Eva Lyford

    Thanks kt. I appreciate your concern, and am grateful for it.