The greatest art, after all, is not to do public relations well, but to live well.
What would the world look like without privacy? According to Noah Dyer, in search of funding to launch an unusual experiment, it would be awesome. On his website, he explains: “removing privacy from our society can improve our lives.”
Dyer considers himself an anti-privacy activist. To prove his theory, he is offering to take the ultimate anti-privacy plunge: live an entire year of his life on camera, every single moment. He’s hoping you aren’t interested in every moment, of course, but if you are he won’t mind.
“…there’s only one purpose for keeping secrets,” Dyer insists. “secrets exist to prevent other people from acting as they would if they had complete information.” To which he adds, “everyone in a society has the right to perfect information.”[i]
In a legal essay published in the San Diego Law Review,[ii] George Washington University research professor Daniel Solove analyzed another reason for privacy: “privacy is about hiding bad things.”
Actually, yes. Sometimes, privacy is about concealing good things.
Francis Bacon, an Englishman born in 1561, never met an anti-privacy activist, but judging from a look at his famous Essays, he would have had an opinion if he did. Bacon drew from Seneca, a Roman philosopher born in 4 BC, to make this observation –
It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to others, and to himself unknown.
Sir Francis Bacon was thinking of celebrities, but in an information age this might be true of anyone. It is possible for all your facebook friends to know what you had for breakfast, for the government to have a list of everyone you’ve ever called, and for the whole world to view your work history and music preferences online.
Meanwhile, it is also possible that, in your hearts of hearts, you could be a stranger to yourself.
Or to cite a recent tragedy – the suicide of Robin Williams – it might be possible for the whole world to think you’re a comedian when you’re actually miserable.
Our 21st century world is a loud place: few disagree. Inside this loudness, it is sometimes easy to live so carelessly that silence is forgotten. Like Sir Bacon’s celebrities hundreds of years before, today everyone discovers that it is possible to live so publicly – and broadcast so much – that precious little is left to be private. Like a boisterous toddler at bedtime, we have played so loudly all day that we have almost forgotten we have an ‘inside voice.’
Still, the ‘why’s’ of the soul demand to be answered.
Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want from life? What do I value, and why do I value it? Why do I live my life the way I live it? The things I do – are they taking me to the place I want to be?
And it remains true that the ‘why’s’ of life are usually answered in silent places.
In a world where everything is public, it may be time to rediscover the old art of celebrating – or doing anything worth doing – in private. We now have platforms that will share everything with the world: and yet we might remember that not everything should be broadcast from these platforms.
The greatest art, after all, is not to do public relations well, but to live well. Many a marketer would gladly return all her charisma in exchange for the chance to live half as beautifully as she presented.
“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few,” a young George Washington admonished himself in writing. Washington’s sense of discretion would go on to ennoble many a colleague, also serving as a credit to his own reputation.
Are you a private soul? Learn to share meaningful things from the treasure chest of that soul: perhaps some aspects of your life ought to enrich other people, too.
Many others, however, live the loud life in a glass house and cannot imagine life any other way. Have you learned what it means to have sacred things – at least a few – and to treasure them? Try closing the blinds tonight and lingering in the silence unafraid. Bacon’s warning rings through time: “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to others…”
Sometimes the spirit needs sympathy on a bad day, certainly. But more often it needs silence, soul-searching, and the solid joy that is born in both. The loud life – broadcast on social media, say – can usually promise reaction, but rarely reflection.
Authenticity, the core virtue of modern life, is a virtue indeed. But when it elevates raw emotional displays in the name of honesty over a sacred sense of discretion in the name of good taste, authenticity benefits no one. In our rush to be honest we sometimes forget that being honest does not mean saying everything: it means that what is said is true.
Yes – sometimes people should be open and vulnerable. When they need help, they should ask for it – ask far and wide, possibly. When they are happy, they should invite friends to share their joy. When they grieve, they should ask friends to grieve with them. When they are learning meaningful things, they should share them (sometimes). And when they ask the large questions of life, they must ask for input. For a healthy life, sharing is essential.
But people should also have secrets, because some things are sacred.
The world’s most famous mother had her secrets. After giving birth to the Messiah, Mary witnessed astonishing things. But unlike a good celebrity, Mary didn’t go home and write a book, pose for a magazine spread, or start an organization. She didn’t even tell her girlfriends. Instead,
…Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.[iii]
Secrets don’t have to be shameful. The best secrets, in fact, are sacred. Granted, many sacred things aren’t secrets, but some are. It’s like the reason people don’t wear formal clothes when they wash dishes: there’s nothing wrong with the dishes, they just like their best clothes too much to wear them every day.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing the heart in public. But sometimes the contents of the heart are too tender for the whole world to know. And so we have close friends. A beloved, perhaps. And we have also the heart-cries known only to God.
Good tea has to simmer a little while before it’s ready. And even then, who drinks tea on a stage?
Anti-privacy activist Noah Dyer estimates that the staff and equipment needed to document his life – live online 24/7 for 365 days – will cost $300,000. But as of this writing, with 5 days left to go in his fundraising campaign, Dyer has raised a paltry $629.
Why the lack of interest? Perhaps the world’s silence is sending a hint:
Mr. Dyer, we wish you would respect your life enough not to tell us about all of it. We wish you cared enough about something – about anything at all – to have a secret.
[ii] “’I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy,” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=998565
[iii] Luke 2:19, NASB
Photography credit: David Erdos. Used with permission.