My mother was notorious for her inability to keep a secret, and she didn’t seem to like being surprised. My dad tried to surprise her with gifts over the years, but her impatience made it difficult to keep anything from her. In fact, she often nipped a potential surprise in the bud by telling us in detail exactly what she wanted for birthdays or Christmas.
Mom wasn’t really one to “hold things in her heart and ponder them.” She was more a let’s get this out into the open and talk about it right now kind of person.
Dad, on the other hand, could ponder things endlessly. As much as Mom loved to spill the beans, Dad loved to sit with things, turn them over and over in his mind, contemplating a secret he would not share. Sometimes it drove me crazy.
As a kid, I was definitely like my mom. I didn’t want to wait for anything. But I remember a particular Christmas gift when I was 11 or 12 years old. I love rings and had put the suggestion on my Christmas list, not really expecting to get one, but when my aunt Mary Ann arrived home before Christmas and she and Mom went into the bedroom, I figured they were looking at my gift. I couldn’t contain myself. A day or so later, when I was alone, I rummaged through Mom’s dresser until I found the treasure: a small jewelry box that contained an exquisite pearl ring.
My delight lasted only as long as it takes to inhale, and was replaced instantly by shame. On Christmas morning I feigned surprise and no one knew of my transgression. Except for me. I had to live with the fact that I had spoiled the surprise for myself, and it didn’t sit well. I never again tried to search for another hidden gift.
Keeping secrets is similar, except it’s from the inside, rather than without. A secret sits inside, tickling, like a sore throat. Swallow it down. Or urgent, like a quickened heartbeat. Take a deep breath. Or painful, like a sore stomach. If I just divulge the secret I’ll feel so much better. Will I?
I’ve read that people are attracted to the characteristics they admire in others but don’t necessarily have. Could be true, because I married Russ, the best secret-keeper I know, and our children have taken after him. Our son Gerard kept his intention to propose to Sarah a secret for more than four months. On Christmas Eve in 2014 Gerard swore Russ to secrecy when he told him of his intention to give Sarah an engagement ring on Christmas Day. Russ didn’t even tell me. I was a bit crushed, but not because I wasn’t in on the secret until everyone else found out. It was because I realized I probably couldn’t have kept the secret anyway, and I wasn’t the only one who knew that. As it turned out, to be so taken by surprise was completely wonderful.
The tension of holding something inside is both unbearable and exquisite. Maybe if I could think of myself as the oyster that made the pearl for my long-ago ring, holding something precious yet irritating, I could gently incubate, rather than prying the thing open before it is ready to be revealed in all its lustre.
Ron Rolheiser, OMI, has often written on the subject of patience and holding tension: “Life unfolds according to its own innate rhythms which try our patience and it will not let themselves be rushed, except at a cost. . . . Whenever, because of impatience, selfishness, or our unwillingness to stay inside a tension, we short-circuit that process we, in slight or deep ways, violate their reality.”
If there’s one thing about life, it’s that we keep getting chances to practice.