In his novel Beach Music Pat Conroy tells the story of Jack whose wife Shyla committed suicide after struggling unsuccessfully to deal with the demons of her family’s secrets.
Jack’s mother-in-law Ruth blames herself for her daughter’s death. Ruth believes she made a tragic mistake by telling Shyla the story of her survival as a young Jewish woman during the Second World War in Europe. Ruth’s husband George disagrees. He has come to believe that it was his unwillingness to reveal the story of his painful past to his daughter that killed her. George explains to Jack,
I think what happened to me in Europe killed Shyla. And I never told the whole story to anyone, Jack. No one has heard what happened to me because I thought anyone who heard it would never be able to sleep again or have any peace. You know what I learned, Jack? I learned that a story untold could be the one that kills you. I think Shyla might have died because of what I did not tell her, not what Ruth did. I thought silence was the proper resolution and strategy for what happened to me. I did not think my poisons and hatreds and shame would leak out and poison everything I loved.
George was right. The parts of ourselves we feel compelled to keep hidden can be deadly.
Keeping secrets is hard work. The fact that we refuse to reveal the pain of the past does not lessen the impact that pain has on our lives. We cannot escape the past by trying to hide in deadly silence.
We cannot live freely in the present as long as we remain bound by unacknowledged memories. Those stories of our past that we refuse to tell have deadly power.
We keep secrets because we believe that the things we have done, or the things that have been done to us, make us unacceptable. The pain from the past resides in the illusion that there are secrets we hold that make us bad people.
The only way to break the power of shame that afflicts us from the past is to bring the past into the light of the present.
Confession and forgiveness lie at the heart of Christian faith for good reason. To confess and be forgiven is to break the power of the past over our lives. Confession enables us to bring anything from the past out into the light of the present. Forgiveness enables us to understand that the dark hidden secrets of the past no longer have the power to define us in the present. Our identity does not reside in anything bad that has ever happened to us, or anything bad we may ever have done.
Forgiveness affirms to us that our identity resides in a dimension much deeper and more real than the pain and shame of any circumstance or event in our lives. We are defined by the light and beauty of our nature as beings created in the image of God. Our identity resides in the hidden inner realm of the Spirit who dwells within us and empowers us to live in the freedom and peace of love.
Secrets are deadly. By bringing the past to light, we break the power of secrets in our lives. Confession and forgiveness offer the way to freedom and light for which our hearts long.