A whispered remark destroys a career. Corporations share our personal details with our consent. Social media is rife with oversharing.
Have we given up on privacy entirely? Does it matter?
Two stories, with eerie similarities across two millennia, tell us it does. The experiences of Bruce Jenner and the Virgin Mary--yes, really--hold wisdom not just about privacy, but about the value of the inner life it nurtures.
Jenner, I think, did many things right in his 20/20 coming-out interview. He (the pronoun Jenner still uses) came across as authentic and at home in his own journey. He deftly communicated some of the nuances of being trans. The very feat of coming out anywhere, let alone on national television, displays extraordinary courage.
For me, though, the most revealing part of the interview involved what took place before the interview. For decades now, Jenner has been figuring out his gender identity: trying this and that, imagining the steps to take, exploring in fits and starts. When he put on his sister's dresses as a child, when he underwent estrogen treatments in the eighties, he was figuring things out.
Most important, he was figuring things out away from the public eye. So by the time he sat with Diane Sawyer, he had a solid sense of self out of which he could take the daunting step of coming out.
What does this have to do with the Virgin Mary?
She too had a secret. It could have brought her public disgrace. As events unfolded, according to the Gospel of Luke, she didn't broadcast them all over creation. Neither did she just keep them private as something shameful. Rather, the text implies, it was her practice to "treasure all these things and ponder them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).
And like Bruce Jenner, Mary was facing a coming out of her own--quite literally. Baby bumps and births reveal secrets by definition. Did "treasuring all these things and pondering them in her heart" fortify her for the threat of shame?
Whether they did or not, the story illustrates an approach to life that's available to us too. If we maintain an interior life--a heart in which we can treasure things, shielded from public view--it gives us a place to figure things out. We can get used to the changes that keep coming at us. We can try out different responses. We can play with cherished notions, even who we are and who we might become.
We can, in short, let things flower before exposing them to the harsh light of public judgment.
If you think this is unimportant, ask any artist what happens to embryonic ideas when you put them out there too fast. More often than not, they're misunderstood. The misconception of them gets judged. An idea that may have borne fruit in some way, that may have been a starting point for something profound, is dismissed.
All of us have this heart. But it needs cultivating. How? The world's faith traditions give us a panoply of practices to cultivate our interior life: silent prayer, meditation, reflection on sacred texts, deep and satisfying relationships with "soul friends." (Mary cultivated such a relationship by visiting her pregnant cousin Elizabeth.) As a Christian with a monastic/mystical bent, I practice--and write in detail about--the Christian version of these practices, but I suspect they can be rethought and reworked to suit anyone's purpose.
And practicing them can yield some unexpected effects. As my own "heart space" grew more spacious, I found myself spending more time there, connecting with God. Insights emerged to nudge my life into healthier directions. The expanding space crowded out the clamor and drama that come with the public side of life, which social media has turned up to deafening levels.
I can still live amid that clamor and drama, on Facebook and everywhere else. But now I can contribute more compassion, more wisdom, because of that heart space from which compassion and wisdom come.
One could say this works for me because I'm an introvert, and that may well be true. But even if only introverts would benefit, it points to the need for a private space in our lives--and the danger of giving up on it too easily.
A version of this article, including nail polish, appeared recently in IMPACTmagazine.us.
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