The Taboo Behind the Taboo

The thoughts that come this morning might be testing the boundaries of what it means for me to have a public diary.

I read an article last week about how secrets make us ill. Supposedly — statistically — people who out their secrets are healthier. Happier. Although I am not convinced that there is a true correlation between health and happiness. And I’m skeptical of any research design that relies on self-reporting as a reliable measure of who has told their secrets. Midnight raids of the refrigerator are one thing…

I find myself thinking again of the improvisation workshop instructions: say the first thing that comes to mind, don’t censor yourself… really?

There’s an assumption that few of us have wounds that have blurred the lines of decorum. Of course, there are, “Those People”. Even: “Those Kinds of People”. You’d be surprised how often those phrases come up in casual conversation. You don’t even notice the judgment as it slides by wrapped in a compassionate bit of conversation.

I am one of those people.

I have yet to experience opening my box of dark objects in front of someone without feeling like I’d inflicted pain on them. Freaked them out. Maybe shaken their world view for a minute. They want to slam the lid back down on the box, hand me a lollipop, and turn on an after-school special: generalizing the specific can be comforting.

For others.

“You’re not alone” is a camouflage. And a dismissal. We congratulate ourselves for “breaking” taboos by acknowledging what we normally ignore. We smack a label on the pain, stick it a box. Breaking taboos is a coping mechanism for the real world. We’ve done our work: identified it, aww-ed for a minute or two, and sorted it out.

“Those people.”

I think it’s funny when people I’ve confided in forget I am one of “those people”. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what I mean by funny. It’s a funny word.

I try to remember all this when students come to me with their secrets. I try to resist the impulse to generalize their pain with all the stories in my head — even my own. I try to be there with their ugly little object and help them hold it for a little while. This thing — that isn’t a category, isn’t a statistic, isn’t a social phenomenon. It’s the shape of their pain. A unique shape.

But it’s funny. I have no idea what to do after these moments. There’s a reason patients and psychiatrists avoid eye contact at the grocery store. There’s a reason we so often find ourselves confiding in strangers.

You know, I wrote above: There’s an assumption that few of us have wounds that have blurred the lines of decorum. But this feels all wrong. Decorum is a social construct. Wouldn’t doesn’t destroy natural phenomena. Wounds are natural phenomena: shit happens. Decorum is the way we handle it. It keeps the surface of our lives smooth.

I believe attention a reward in any culture, even before our era of “the attention economy”. But there’s an innate duality in the moment of being seen. Celebrity culture is just this phenomenon on steroids.

Demanding to be seen as an individual is an imposition on others. We resent it. We punish it. We envy it.

Daring to be seen as an individual leaves us naked: our individual story is always a story of shame.

From the cultural perspective: attention-seeking.

I think it’s funny that the story of the Garden of Eden never addresses Adam and Eve’s ambivalence about their nakedness after the fall.

But then: until then, it had only been just the three of them. They didn’t consider what anyone else thought of them.

I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object
that I appear to the Other.

Jean Paul Sartre, Being and nothingness

2 Replies to “The Taboo Behind the Taboo”

  1. I think you have absolutely nailed the connection between secrets and shame and othering. I had not put them together like this and it’s so clear. Thanks, again.


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