Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Should You Confess Your Secrets?

In my twenties, I guessed one of my mother's dark secrets. I am not sure that was a good thing. Read More

"Should You Confess Your Secrets?"

The very fact that you are posing this question suggests that you quite reasonably have considered the possibility that morals can be situational. That being said, you frame your question at first within the context of several hypotheticals:

1." If a secret is maintained by lies, the discovery may lead to distrust. "

You do not specify the nature and degree of the secret, the motivation for keeping it but suggest if "maintained by lies", may lead to distrust. True enough, but it is equally likely that a secret--depending on its nature--if revealed, can also lead to distrust. I've been on both sides of that dilemma and found the opposite to be true. I maintained a secret with lies when younger, chose to reveal it, and was rewarded with my act of courage by a sense of greater trust in the mind of the people I had been deceiving. I truly believe that if a person possesss a degree of moral humility by having committed a sufficient number of "sins of commission or omission" and is sufficiently humbled by it, he or she cannot but feel a deep sense of compassion for a person who is confessing a wrong to them. Yes, I may have lied to you. I may have deceived you and I know you feel abused in a certain way but the onus of understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness is on you--not me. My moral failures have lead me to a place where I cannot ( could not) condemn or chastise anyone for harboring a secret that tormented them. i would do everything in my power to help them accept forgivenessand move on.

2. "That distrust can grow into a sense of unreality—of not knowing what is real in your world and what is not." Unless a person has very serious psychological issues I do not think that is possible.
If I distrust someone who has consistently deceived me, I may lose the ability to discern when they are telling the truth or lying but it will not affect MY ability to judge reality. Your suggestion is that the person who has been deceived can become psychotic. Again, I do not think that is possible unless the seeds of psychosis were lying dorm,ant within the person.

3. Stressful secrets can lead to illness—symptoms like anxiety, headaches, backaches and digestive problems—for the person with the secret and children who are close by and pick up the stress."

Yes, they can but so can painful truths. A man, for instance, is fired, but he still gets dressed every morning and goes out the door as if he has a job. This goes on for weeks. He fears discovery. What will he do when the money runs out? Before it does, he finds another job and THEN tells his wife his secret. He was deeply ashamed and felt like a failure. Would it have been better to tell his wife the day he was fired and have her consumed by anxeity wondering how they were going to pay the rent or health insurance or was it better for him to have said--as he did: "I'm very ashamed. I've been deceiving you. I was fired. I felt like a failure and couldn't bring myself to tell you but today I got another job for more money and we'll be o.k.?

Doesn't the man's choice depend more on his wife's potential response rather than his considerations of his own welfare. Very often, we are compelled to confess to ease our own distress rather that to facilitate wholeness or reconciliation between ourself and another.

As to your final question, "Have you betrayed your mother?" Perhaps, if you are only seeking to come to terms with your own emotional ambivalence about this issue. On the other hand, if it elicits compassion in you for the long years your mother carried her secret, if somehow, although she is gone, that compassion creates greater love for your mother than disclosing her story has served a higher purpose.

I believe everyone who reads this piece--or almost everyone--will react as I have. We shall think no less of your mother or yourself but find in it a very common human drama. We all have our secret sins and shames but we must not obsess about them. We can use them to be more tolerant and unconditionally accepting of others because we have borne the same burden and received the forgiveness of others whose love we heared we might have lost.

Only liars who want to keep

Only liars who want to keep everyone in the dark for the higher good come up with ill thought ideas like yours to justify their mindset and assuage their guilt. Better a hard truth than a nice lie.
My mother hid from me the fact that she did not actually marry her first husband and that her first child, my half brother, was born out of wedlock. I understood why it might have been hidden in the 60's since that kind of thing was likely to frowned upon but it's way past that now. The real reason she hid that fact from me and my siblings is that she wanted to establish herself as some kind of superior moral authority. She wanted reasons to keep everyone in the household under a tight fascist grip. She used it as a tool for beatings, for being caught dating. And of course when we were all very young, we wanted to live up to this fake morality. But like the author of this article, we all suspected something was amiss and started digging. So many lies. This was just one of many many serious lies. of course she is from a culture that views lying as something normal and polite so we cut her some slack. But If a person tells one lie this serious, not like lying to avoid hurting someones feelings about ugly new haircut, they will likely tell more serious lies. People lie serious lies to gain control over something or someone.
so now, my siblings and i just treat her like the liar she is. We just assume she is lying.

Thank you for your detailed

Thank you for your detailed response and support!

On lying:

Where to begin?

When you assert "Only liars who want to keep everyone in the dark for the higher good come up with ill thought ideas like yours to justify their mindset and assuage their guilt." You have Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant on your side--insofar as they each considered lying an absolute wrong. I have Plato, who, in his "Republic", Plato, was of the opinion that there are situations when one is indeed permitted to lie. For instance, he allows physicians to lie to patients if it is for their own good and statesmen to deceive if it is for the welfare of the public. There are numerous Christian thinkers of antiquity and modern philosophers have also divided into two camps: Those who take an absolutist position on lying, whereby it is always forbidden, and those who believe that falsehoods are sometimes necessary, and accordingly, permissible.

(I'm guessing you would be consistent and suggest Plato and Grotius (1925), the seventeenth century Dutch theologian and legal scholar, by many considered "the father of modern international law," who also rejects the absolutist position you take and asserts that falsehoods are only a problem if it violates the right of the individual who hears it.)

Nietzsche considered lying is a necessity of life. I can almost hear your pulse racing. Nietzsche. Fair enough, but what problem do you have with the William Blake,

"A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent".

Or Alexander Pope?

Tis not enough your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do"

And as a final example, there is the insight of the famous psychologist Alfred Adler:

"The truth is an awful weapon of aggression.
It is possible to lie, and even to murder, with the truth".

It would seem your initial ridiculous generalization, "Only liars want to keep everyone in the dark... ."
doesn't pass the laugh test.

Even Talmudic scholars make exceptions for permissable lies:

Lying to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feelings, or to provide comfort.
Lying in a situation where honesty might cause oneself or another person harm.
Lying for the sake of modesty or in order not to appear arrogant.
Lying for the sake of decency, i.e., not telling the truth about intimate matters.
Lying to protect one’s property from scoundrels.

It is painfully clear to me that since you interpret your mother's secrecy and lying not merely to protect herself from shame or some other painful consequence but as justification to abuse you--including emoptional and physical abuse--your position on this is severely distorted by the pain you suffer and I can almost feel the white hot heat of the anger you feel for her.

I have made it a point NEVER to put much weight on the considerations of such angry people--even if that anger is justified. You seem to loathe your mother and the only wish I have for you is to know the inexpressible peace that can come from forgiving her for her reprehensible actions. It may be impossible to do this while she still treats you in a way that fans the flames of your outrage but perhaps you can do after she dies.

My mother, too, was abusive emotionally and physically. I felt as you did until I watched her suffer unbearably from a terminal disease that mercilessly robbed her of any dignity she might have.

I really could care less what you think of me or my morals. I know what it is to be lied to in grievous lies and to perpetuate lies. The lies I have told and will no doubt tell in the future have been a blessing: I cannot judge ANYONE for their moral failings no matter how venial or mortal they may be.
And were I compelled to committ a wrong and the two choices were to lie to another or judge another, I would chose the former without hesitation. This is not in any way an endorsement of lying as much as it is utter revulsion for those who have the moral arrogance to judge another.

That power is granted to the courts and God. Not to me. Not to you. You can assume that power but in the end it is poisons the spirit as much as deception.


Your gathering of authorities that give us permission to lie is impressive, and what strikes me as well is the injunctions against overly blunt or aggressive truth-telling. I may have to steal these from you for a new post! Do you mind?

Re: Bluntness

Of course you can use these sources.

Aristotle himself said good writers borrow; great writers steal.

These sources don't know I took them, i'm not giving them back so I wouild imagine I'm a theif--which brings up another interesting moral question: is stealing ever morally permissable?

I'd gues you know my answer to that.

Proposition: A man lives in a small town and doesn't have the money for a medicine critically important to the health of his son who could die without it but he doesn't have the money at the moment to get it. The only pharmacist in town has a longstanding hatred of the man because his one true love married the man who can't afford the medicine and refuses him credit. The man decides to steal the medicine. Did he do wrong and if so it is justified and an exception to the rule--b=not the law?

The only reason I cited these "authorities" was to counter "anonymous'" over-the-top assertion that
"only liars justify lying to keep everyone in the dark."

Damn! That's a lie! The truth is, that's not the only reason: I find it very annoying when people use cliches as answers to profoundly difficult questions and then use an anecdote from their own lives to make a sweeping generalization that must apply to all people under all circumstances.


should read: "an exception to the rule but not the law."

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Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.


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