Other Selves: Understanding the Difference between Privacy and Secrecy

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Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.

I stumbled across an article about the nature of affairs – how happily married people often “cheat”. It was an interesting article in general, but what struck me fundamentally were the ideas that underpin so many other aspects of life – not just romantic relationships. I debate quite frequently, as I have written about before, about the difference between privacy and secrecy and where that boundary is. What kind of information – how much information – do I owe someone just because they have asked, just because of the nature of our interaction (i.e., do I tell a potential employer X, do I keep Y private, do I reveal those same Xs and Ys to my husband or wife or potential husband or wife?)? Is total openness and transparency required – and what are the rules governing this? Are there any? In my case, there are a lot of things that are deeply private for me, but keeping them private is not always all about me if I have invited someone else into my life.

“Transparency is the whole culture. The way a regular person tells everything about themselves on television. The way technology allows us to find out anything—99 percent of the people I see, their affairs are discovered through email or phones. But transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness these days. I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.”

Of course some private things are personal and don’t involve anyone else. But then other people and their expectations and feelings are a part – is there not some responsibility there? As this article on affairs – and the reasons underlying affairs – argues, there is “…a distinction between cheating and non-monogamy. Cheating is about a violation of a contract. People misunderstand me because they think I’m saying affairs are OK. No! But I do think examining monogamy is our next frontier.”

Is examining monogamy really the next frontier? The article explains the researcher’s point of view – that at one time, premarital sex was also considered to be wrong and not a topic for consideration or debate. Is this the next logical step? Maybe not just monogamy but in a broader scope, marriage. What is marriage, how is it defined – not just by society but by negotiation between an individual couple?

Today, as the article discusses, “We have this idea that our partner is our best friend, that there is one person who will fulfill all our needs, which is really an extraordinary idea! So by definition, people must transgress because something is missing at home. We think, if you had what you needed at home, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, instead of thinking that marriage is at best an imperfect arrangement.”

Maybe nothing is missing from a relationship or marriage at all that leads a party to the relationship to cheat. The most important takeaway from the article, actually, is a point that is applicable across life’s activities: Affairs are often not about wanting someone else but wanting to be someone else ourselves:

“Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.”

This being me, I immediately think of a poem.

I Can Not
-Anna Swir (Poland)

I envy you.
Every moment.

You can leave me.
I can not leave myself.

Is that the feeling behind these urges to have affairs? Not to leave one’s partner but to leave oneself? Or the oneself one is or has become within that particular relationship?

Past All Accident – Older Love and Weirdos

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“Antony and Cleopatra
were right;
they have shown
the way. I love you
or I do not live
at all.”*

One of my early conversations with my love, my firewall – an all-night affair that turned to the obscurity of poetry’s meaning in the early hours of a winter morning – focused on William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Me being the amateur poetry connoisseur, I talked with him about how difficult it was for high school kids to be forced to read and analyze poetry. I shared the tales of how the most literal guy I knew (a guy named Frank) was forced to perform analysis on this Williams classic. Granted, I love poetry, but I failed to see the genius of that particular Williams piece. I can spend time now discussing it, even if it is only to argue for or against the (artistic) value of this poem, but at 16 or 17, the William Carlos Williams oeuvre was fairly meaningless and easy to dismiss.

That’s the beauty of poetry, in any case. Something that has no meaning or feels totally pretentious at one point upon initial reading may take on a whole new meaning later when seen through the filter of life experience. Sometimes poetry sinks in. I find that certain lines stick with me and then fit so perfectly as descriptive postscripts to life’s experiences. Poets are poets for a reason – they can almost magically capture something succinctly – ineffable feelings and thoughts. Thus, although I might want to express whatever it is I think or feel, a poet (or songwriter) has undoubtedly done it before me and better.

That said, I still don’t love the wheelbarrow poem, but I have long been in love with Williams’s poem “The Ivy Crown” – its meaning (or my interpretation of it) becomes more impressive to me all the time (impressive in the sense that it leaves impressions). It too has taken on variable and deeper meanings for me as I get older. It captures for me the cynicism I have always felt about the idea of love and romance while not negating it or throwing it out entirely; indeed, at this middle-age mark only finding the somewhat transformative “business of love” actively at this point, the whole theme is rather topical for me.

“Romance has no part in it.
The business of love is
cruelty which,
by our wills,
we transform
to live together.
It has its seasons,
for and against,
whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
to assert
toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
Keep
the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of
briars.”
“At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.
Sure
love is cruel
and selfish
and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.*

“Older love” must be a kind of weird thing. You bring half a lifetime of past experience (some would argue baggage) into each new relationship. I feel like I have very little of the traditional baggage since I was never married, never had kids, no complicated stuff from the past. I have glided through my own personal life as I have glided casually into and out of other people’s lives. I never wanted to be much more than a “guest star” (as on The Love Boat – but I am not Charo) in most people’s lives, so hooking up with married idiots or people who were otherwise unavailable to me in the long term or in some greater capacity than a casual weekend has been my modus operandi.

I discussed with my brother how the weirdness of this creeps into your self-awareness and creates a strange kind of doubt. You may have chosen this lifestyle (as I did) but at some point, you start to feel a distance from humanity, want to be alone more than is really healthy and start to feel out of step with basic norms, and it becomes the status quo. Your own perception of normal. It feels like it will not change, and you don’t expect it to. You become more withdrawn, and as such, you are more invisible – so it is a self-perpetuating cycle. It’s not like there is no chance that you’d meet someone who could love you or even like you a lot – it is just that you can’t if you’re not open to it. The weirder you feel, the more closed you become.

But “older” does not mean there are no surprises, as I have found at various turns. Time and age actually don’t make any difference. It’s a matter of attitude and willingness.

“But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
we have,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
to keep
the jeweled prize
always
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.”*

*Excerpts of “The Ivy Crown” by William Carlos Williams