“There’s no strangeness you can imagine that is more strange than the lives of apparently conventional people behind closed doors.”
I read that in an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis in the New York Times on New Years’ Eve while my family and I did the Sunday Times crossword, and it’s been lazily looping through my head since. The idea of being private in public has been camped out in my brain for about 6 years now, ever since my first acting class in college where we did what’s called a BOE – basic object exercise. I think the actual prompt for the exercise has something to do with at least 3 minutes interacting with 5 or more objects, but the real focus is being able to recreate a private moment in front of other people. I’m pretty sure I only succeeded at it once in my four years in the program, but the notion stuck. We are so very mysterious without intending to be. Think about the first crush that truly made you swoon – didn’t you just want to know what they did in the time you didn’t see them? Completely ordinary things that may as well have been classified Pentagon files. That’s the stuff BOE’s are made of – the moments spent sitting in your room thinking, or brewing a cup of coffee and bringing it to your desk as you write, spraying your perfume before you walk out the door. The events that are only commonplace to you.
I don’t think that’s quite what Daniel was getting at, but it’s the intersection between the two ideas that I’m interested in – the idea that much of what we do when alone is generally not that different from what other people do, and the idea that much of what we do when alone is so different from what other people do that we don’t talk about it. For instance, crying. I have no problem crying in public, meaning I obviously don’t have a hard time crying in private. I recently saw someone I have known nearly my entire life cry for the first time, and it was only because I heard it behind a closed door and opened it. Oftentimes, even if you are a comfortable public cryer, the first thing you say to a person that catches you crying is, “I’m sorry,” despite it being a universal human experience that someone else just happened to catch you in the midst of. I had a teacher in high school who was notoriously sensitive, almost always aglow with holy emotion. He taught biology, but every class began with a devotional, and every devotional ended with him crying because he is easily moved, and every single time he started to cry he would dart his head down to the right with a flustered smile and say, “Sorry,” even though we had seen him do precisely this thing every day before.
In my experience, most secrets are revealed in a similar way – involuntarily, followed by an apology, despite being a universal experience. “I’m so lonely – God, I’m sorry, why did I say that.” “I’m not very good at this – I’m sorry, I’m not fishing for compliments.” “I’m still not over it – I’m sorry, I don’t know why I brought that up.” It’s these accidentally public sentiments that drive our private lives. Anything that’s happening behind a closed door is bound to clumsily appear out in the open it’s the loudest thing you’re lugging around with you anyway. TBuried Child is about a Big secret, a secret that could legitimately ruin every relationship of every character in the play. That terrible Girl on the Train movie is about a guy with a Big secret. Murder is a Big secret. There are secrets that exist simply because it’s no one else’s business but yours. There are secrets between former lovers and former friends, and neither should be divulged to anyone but the people they pertain to. There are secrets that are just plain embarrassing. There are secrets that need only be kept for a certain amount of time, and can be casually divulged past their expiration dates. But I think the ones most people are keeping close to the chest are generally less precious than they appear. “Objects in Mirror Are Less Precious Than They Appear.” Strangeness is often cultivated by fear, not unshared experience.
In that same acting class in college, there was a quote from Frederick Buechner written on a white board in the periphery. “I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are – even if we tell it only to ourselves – because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.”
I particularly love that bit about coming to view our own selves as the edited version. Does anything sound more dangerous?
It’s not really tipping my hand to say that I think most secrets ought to be told. For instance, love. I think in general you ought to tell a person if you love them. I think you ought to tell someone if you’re mad at them, and I think you ought to let someone know the bad thing that happened 8 years ago that you wish you were over but you just aren’t and yes, sorry, it’s still affecting you. Here is a secret: I still sleep with my baby blanket. Here’s another one: I’m self-conscious about my arms. I have punished an innocent party for the behavior of a guilty one, and I have posted something on Instagram for the benefit of one person’s viewing it. The pseudo-strangeness that goes on behind my closed door – but surely no stranger than yours.