Friday, September 12, 2014

On Telling and Hearing Secrets

"We help people move toward grace and love, as we receive confessions of secrets bound by shame, and people are able to share confessions when they find themselves in a community of hospitality."  Emma Justes

Who listens to your secrets?
Are we as sick as our secrets?  One of the costs of never letting go of secrets is not living the life that is ours to live. Secrets and shame require isolation, which makes for a very lonely life. We cobble together a fake and false self, until we are ready to let go of the shame and its exhausting toll on our lives.

In Please Don't Tell (2014) Emma Justes, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Care at United Theological Seminary, writes a volume to prepare clergy and spiritual companions how to listen to the long guarded, shame filled secrets of others. In doing so, Justes shows great compassion for those who, in telling, can receive the healing love of God, and the freedom to be. 

A person chooses to tell us their shameful secret. What should the secret sharer expect from those of us who listen? Justes argues that the character of our openness and hospitality will determine how effectively we can listen- or if we can be approached to begin with. Try this: hear what the speaker is actually saying. 

But there are so many blocks to honest listening:

  • Discerning truth instead of just listening

  • My physical limitations, such as fatigue and tiredness

  • Poor self-awareness, which will distract me with self concern

  • My thoughts which race ahead of the speaker's words-  to prepare an answer, judge or fix

  • My discomfort with any parts of another's secret

  • My secret(s)

  • These dynamics can prevent us from hearing what is actually said by the secret bearer. Which means that the opportunity to be heard and begin healing can be diminished and disrupted by our own intrusive stuff.

    Secrets are like confessions, in that they are kept in families or churches for life-times and generations (King David's family and Joseph and his brothers are referenced later in the book). Some secrets  may never see the light of day. However, confidentiality has limits and does not include a charge of child or elder abuse, which must be reported to the authorities. Clergy, according to Justes, also should report any threat of another doing harm to self or someone else. The statute regarding child abuse and neglect in Texas is here.

    I found Justes' discussion of lying, in the context of secret-keeping, more helpful than what she has to say about shame. "Both truth telling and lying can function in the service of healing or doing harm, sometimes both," Justes asserts. Justes then tells of the abuse suffered by her mother and kept secret for many years. Regardless, the secret-keeping did not hinder Justes' mother from taking action to protect and safeguard her own children from the abuser.
    On shame, a play on shamelessness is used to suggest that shame, like truth telling, isn't unambiguous. Shame, according to Justes, is best understood on a continuum between extreme self-disregard and complete autonomy. Is a little shame thus a good thing? While balance is a favorite tool of psychologists, Justes describes it mostly via negative with little, if any, explanation of how the balance is discovered. Or do you just use balance and healing interchangeably?

    The discussion of the place of memory in secret telling prompted me to look at the seven "sins" of memory, especially the nature of a persistent painful personal memory of many decades ago. Exploring certain memories is not about knowing what happened objectively, but about context, and how we experience, store, and recall the event, all of which can change throughout a lifetime. 
    What about forgiveness? Healing from secrets "depends on having someone to talk with about the secret over a period of time and may include forgiveness of one's self or of others." Or, it may not, since forgiveness is a choice the secret- keeper makes. If we force it, "the secret -keeper is likely to experience more shame for not being able to forgive."
    I recommend this volume for anyone who is given the ministry of hearing the confessions or secrets of others. Whether or not we discern that a referral to a mental health professional, etc. is appropriate, we are responsible for checking in with those who share their secrets with us, offering continued support.

    Because it's impossible to offer what you do not have, I can't help noting the clear implications of this book for pastors and spiritual directors: we need trustworthy people in our lives who listen, carefully, to our secrets.         

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