Spilling the Beans Can Make a Mighty Big Mess

Spilling the Beans Can Make a Mighty Big Mess
Being trusted to be told a secret might make the person telling it feel better, but it conveys a huge responsibility on the recipient to honor that trust. (Fei Meng)
Jeff Minick

“Promise you won’t tell anyone.”

Most of us have either made that request or had it made of us. A key unlocks the heart and the lips, and what was confined within is entrusted to the care and keeping of another.

Sometimes, the things we keep close to our chest are good news—an upcoming promotion our employer wants kept confidential or a pregnancy unannounced to a mother-in-law until just the right moment. More often, however, our secrets are wrapped in a darker fabric, wrongs and evils committed as long ago as adolescence or as recently as yesterday.

The Catholic confessional and the multitude of therapists scattered around the country bear witness to the need to unburden ourselves of guilt and regret. Both priest and counselor listen while we speak without fear of our words going beyond the walls around us.

Just as frequently, we look to friends or family members for the relief that comes from divulging a secret. Here, we may overlook the grave risk we are taking. We blurt out our confession, forgetting that no professional code of discretion binds our listener to silence. Trust is the only guardian of our revelation.

Clearly, then, we should carefully consider what we are about to reveal and to whom.

Before we engage in what F. Scott Fitzgerald described in “The Great Gatsby” as “riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” we should ask ourselves why we want to bring this trunk from the attic and show its contents to another. Are we seeking some sort of relief? Getting another opinion? Or if the secret involves someone other than ourselves, are we simply indulging in cheap gossip?

At the same time, we should consider whether it’s fair to burden someone else with our misconduct or anxieties. Will the solace gained offset the damage we might do to our listener? Here’s an extreme case: Suppose a man facing investigation for his company’s financial scandals is in despair and contemplating suicide. He tells a friend, but makes him promise to keep everything to himself. That confidant now faces a terrible dilemma. Does he honor his friend’s request, all the while hoping he does nothing drastic, or does he break his word and tell the man’s wife?

Which brings us to trustworthiness. Will our listener keep their lips zipped? Most of us know people we love who couldn’t keep a secret to save their lives. Either they are careless with their speech or they enjoy gossip too much to be trusted. If there’s no trust, there should be no confession. It’s that simple.

If our selected custodian of secrets meets these criteria, and we then unload our troubles, we must be absolutely certain to add, “Please keep this to yourself. Don’t tell anyone else. Promise me that.” Otherwise, that person may innocently repeat our story to another friend, and the swirl of rumor and innuendo begins.

And now a side note to the keepers of secrets: Once someone has spilled their guts to you, try to remain non-judgmental. If you wish, ask if you might help in some way. But above all, don’t break their confidentiality, except in the most urgent and terrible of situations. You’ll lose their trust forever, and deservedly so.

We live in an age that promotes wide-open revelations as healthy and discourages discretion and restraint. Be that as it may, in “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Ben Franklin made an observation worth reiterating: “Three may keep a secret if two are dead.” The man has a point. Other than seeking the ear of a professional, there’s only one tried-and-true way of keeping a secret: Keep it to yourself.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
Related Topics