The Tension Between Personal, Private and Public
Is it personal, or is it private? That is an important distinction, which I remember being carefully outlined in the community organizing training I received over thirty years ago. It was suggested that we can freely, or at least carefully, share personal information about family, but the intimate details of our relationships with our children or spouse should be kept private. We can talk about the work that we do, and the roles we play — but rarely do we share anything about salary. That’s private.
The distinction between personal and private can get a little blurry when we find ourselves in more public spaces — as when interviewing for a job or advocating for a public or political agenda. I remember, after receiving a job offer, being criticized for not sharing what I thought was private information during the interview process. The team that hired me later discovered this information, deemed it personal and not private, and said I should have disclosed it. Other times, when I have been on the interviewing end, candidates have shared information about themselves that made me uncomfortable, because it seemed that I was somehow complicit in an invasion of their privacy. I felt that what was disclosed was none of my business.
The distinction between personal and private — and public, has been front page news for the past several weeks, as political leaders and the media wrestle with the legitimacy of securing documents from Mar a Lago. What do those documents contain — and what response should be forthcoming? Some have called the arrival of the FBI as an invasion of privacy, while others say that privacy doesn’t apply in this case, given that the documents are government property AND they contain sensitive information about national security. Some say the full content of the documents should be made public; others say that the information needs to be kept within a very narrow sphere of the appropriate national security professionals. In other words, to be kept private.
The debate goes on, and as more information is disclosed, I suspect that the boundaries between personal, public and private will be redrawn — as they were after the Watergate scandal nearly fifty years ago.
Most of us have a whole trove of experiences and memories that we want to keep private. From ourselves. Our psyches keep them locked up. We don’t have to worry much about security, because we are the only ones who have access to those hidden places. They are our secrets, and we can ignore them to the extent that we can forget they are there.
But they don’t go away. It has often been said — what we resist, persists.
Our desire to keep painful memories shut down usually result in them emerging in unexpected and damaging ways.
It turns out that Jesus had something to say about the inevitable tension between personal and private. “..Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6). I understand Jesus to be saying that we are never alone; that we are never totally private. And that trusting in the presence of that Divine Presence is its own reward; because we don’t need to maintain the firewall that separates us from the darkness of our lives.
We can bring them into the light. By making them personal to our soul. It is yet another way we can be set free.