Sunday, October 22, 2006

To tell or not to tell

While talking with a good friend this morning, a subject came up that has been on my mind a lot lately. I have seen other people going through similar situations online and around me. How much do you tell about someone who was once a friend when they're no longer a friend and out to hurt you?

When someone hurts us or says things about us that aren't true our first instinct is to defend ourselves. We want people to see both sides of the story, to invalidate the lies and to have our say. We call it justice, balancing the scale, but it's natural. It's instinct. Someone hits you, you put up your hands or find some way to defend yourself. It is only after long training and sometimes even beatings we learn to ignore that basic instinct. We also ignore the instinct when we give up and wish to die. Defense of our person, and by extension our reputation, is hard wired.

It takes an effort to ignore that instinctive fight or flight response. There are times when that instinct would do more harm than good--such as in the case of bringing up confidences entrusted to us by a friend. I believe it is fear of those confidences being made public that makes some people fear and even hate former friends and makes them lash out and attempt to destroy the other person's credibility. They want the skeletons locked tightly inside the cupboard not laid bare.

In some ways it is a tough call to make. Do you defend yourself with someone else's secrets, information given to you by someone who was once a close friend but now isn't, just to let people know your oppressor is a liar and a cheat or worse? The information would prove the other person is a liar and not to be trusted. The act of revealing a confidence would also damage your credibility. People would not be able to trust you. If you would not keep a friend's confidence, whether or not they are still your friend, how could anyone trust you with themselves or their lives? No, you didn't lie. You told the truth, someone else's truth, a truth entrusted to you.

It doesn't matter that you are no longer friends. It doesn't matter how much they have worked to harm you personally or professionally or how they've held you up to public scorn. What matters is you were once friends. You don't have the right to air their dirty laundry or loose the skeletons from the closet. You gave your word and they trusted you when they were most vulnerable. Even if they spread lies and gossip about you behind your back, even if they want to destroy you professionally, you don't have the right to take their secrets and make them public.

I don't have that right, not if I want my friends, past, present and future, to trust me and know their secrets will be safe. Not if I want to be able to trust them. Not if I want to sleep at night and look myself in the mirror.

The older we get the more secrets and baggage we accumulate. The more we need to be able to share the burden with someone we trust, someone we know will never hurt us, whether we remain friends or not. Without the ability to trust someone, to share burdens with someone, we lock ourselves into a smaller and smaller space away from people, relationships and friendship until we die inside. Most people won't notice the difference, but you will know.

It has been very difficult for me to remain silent on some subjects but in my soul I know that in defending myself I would inevitably harm myself. I can't do that. I won't do that. Just as I keep from saying things to friends and acquaintances that might hurt them if they knew, I decided to keep the secrets buried and the skeletons locked in their closets. They are not mine. I have no right to them. Silence is not a lie nor is it a lie of omission if no one is hurt. If the information would save a life or free someone, then I would find a way to make the knowledge available. That is not the case here. I cannot defend myself by breaking another's trust.

So many problems would be avoided and people would be happier if they learned to think before they speak. Ask yourself who the information would hurt most? Is defending myself worth proving I am untrustworthy? Do I add fuel to the fire by speaking my piece?

This morning, out of the blue, a good friend gave me the answer. She said she knows without doubt that anything she has shared with me in confidence will be safe whether or not we are friends. While I have struggled she has quietly watched. She knew the outcome before I did. She understood that sometimes when we answer the allegations and lies laid at our feet or thrown in our faces we prove the very thing our oppressors have said. We show there are reasons for us to wish them harm even if we don't. By enumerating the hurts we have received at another's hands, and despite our claims to the contrary, we prove there is something valid in our oppressor's claims.

Hammer some nails in a pristine piece of wood and then take them out. The wood is no longer unmarred or unmarked. It will always show the signs of what you have done. People are like that piece of wood. The damage will always be there even if you fill in the holes with wood putty. Saying you're sorry removes the nails but the damage remains. You can work around the damage or find ways to use the damage in a more constructive manner but the holes are still there. How do you apologize for inflicting hurt or damage without leaving a scar or a hole? You can't. If it means enduring a few more scars and holes, it is better to absorb the damage and the hurt rather than inflict more of the same on someone else.

Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Some religions teach that it is better to bend with the wind rather than break or to allow hurt to flow over and around you like water. Either way, the willow will lose a few leaves to be replaced in another season and the rock will slowly erode as the water flows around it. Everything and everyone affect the world and the people around them. It is inevitable. Like hiking a trail in the wilderness it is best to leave as little damage as possible. Dust and dirt, blood and sweat wash off. The trail will eventually incorporate evidence of your passage. The grass will spring back up once the weight is gone and dead grass will be replaced by new grass, but whatever you do, consider the consequences.

Words spoken in anger cannot be called back or unheard. Trust that has been earned cannot always be regained once it is lost. Betray someone and it is likely no one will ever believe or trust you again. Is defending yourself when there will be those who will believe the lie and not you no matter what you say, especially when you betray a one-time friend's confidence, worth it? Or is it better to keep an honorable silence so people will know, without understanding why they know, you are someone to be trusted?

More often than not, less is more and silence is indeed golden.

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