We are our secrets

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O. Hobart Mowrer, in the course of his service as a psychologist, set himself to understand more deeply our hollowed-out emotional lives. He noted that, commonly, when we perform a good deed, we advertise it, display it, draw attention to it, at least hint at it, hoping to collect on the emotional credit of it. But when we do something cheap, evil, or stupid, we hide it, deny it, minimize it, for obvious reasons. But the emotional discredit from our bad moments stays with us and even accumulates with each successive hypocrisy. The result is, we make ourselves chronically empty in conscience and heart and feeling. Our lives are required of us, and we are found wanting. No felt “net worth.” Lost confidence, no pizzazz. Our positive energies are depleted by our fugitive concealing.

Then Mowrer wondered, What if we reversed our strategy? What if we admitted our weaknesses, owned up to our failures, named our idiot-moments, confessed our follies, errors, and debts, and also hid away from everyone’s view our smart ideas, heroic sacrifices, kind deeds, charities, and virtues? What if, instead of throwing back at the other guy his worst failure while trotting out our own best moment, we put up our worst against his best? What then? Our hearts might start filling up.

He entitled his essay “You are your secrets.” It is in his book The New Group Therapy (New York, 1964), pages 65-71. His insight has a long and honored history:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. . . . Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1, 4).

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