Recently, I was introduced to a book called Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.
The author of that book, Seth Stephen-Davidowitz, is a masterful data analyst. He insists that Big Data, which offers scientists the ability to analyze the millions of clicks, searches and inquiries we make online, proves what many of us already know:
The lives we present to the world and the lives that we lead are actually quite different.
Let me share a few examples.
Stephen-Davidowitz reports that the National Enquirer – a tabloid that publishes stories about alien abductions and celebrity sex scandals – sells 3x as many copies as The Atlantic – a longform, journalistic periodical. However, The Atlantic is 45x more likely to be referenced or to appear in Facebook posts.
His conclusion: We want people to think we're smarter and more sophisticated than we really are, so we share the stories we think we should instead of the stories we truly enjoy.
Stephen-Davidowitz also notes that on social media - where we most actively shape what others see about our lives - the top descriptors that complete the phrase “My husband is…” are “my best friend”
“the greatest” and
But on Google, the search engine - where no one ever sees what we type, or so we tell ourselves - the phrase “My husband is” is most often completed by “mean”
“a jerk” and
It can't be denied: The lives we present to the world and the lives that we lead are actually quite different.
And I don't just say this as an observer of the phenomenon. I say this as a participant. In fact, if you’d peruse my Facebook profile, you’d see photos of me in a pristine swimming pool riding a giant swan. You’d find links to thoughtful documentaries, and inspirational quotes from historical figures. But you'd find no indication that on a fairly regular basis I fall asleep on my couch while watching Criminal Minds reruns after I’ve had popcorn for dinner.
In fact, my propensity to edit and embellish my life got me thinking of a poem by children’s author Shel Silverstein. He writes:
Underneath my outside face
There’s a face that no one sees
A little less smiley
A little less sure
But a whole lot more like me.
Uncle Shel and Stephen-Davidowitz are making the same point:
We’ve all got an outside face. We’ve all got a “me” that we show to others. We all feel the impulse to present something a little more smiley and a little more sure to the people we meet. But underneath, our lives are quite different, aren’t they?
But why is this? Why do we all – at some level - share a gut-level compulsion to communicate only certain things, but not others to those around us?
It's because we desperately desire to look good, to be noticed, to be envied, discussed, and affirmed.
We want to know that others see us and like what they see.
But this desire to look good comes with very real costs. Left unchecked, it eventually consumes our attention, distracts our focus, interrupts our peace, and robs our joy. It convinces us that people only like us because of the persona we've presented. It leaves us nervous that we'll be abandoned as soon as those around us grow bored with image we've cultivated, or discover it's all a sham.
So what do we do? How do we keep the impulse to look good from taking over our lives?
The answer might surprise you.
We need to keep more secrets.
Let me explain.
It's conventional playground wisdom that secrets aren't good. But Jesus suggested otherwise. Some secrets, Jesus taught, are good secrets.
He said: “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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."
Jesus indicates that a tried and true pathway for avoiding self-absorption is doing good things in secret. He advocates the spiritual discipline of secrecy.
Jesus teaches that it's healthy for us to withdraw from the gaze of others, and to intentionally do things that honor God in spaces where no one else is watching.
Philosopher Dallas Willard writes:
In the discipline of secrecy: “We abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known… to help us lose or tame the hunger for fame, justification, or just the attention of others.”
Secrecy (rightly practiced) enables us to place our personal PR department entirely in the hands of God. When we embrace the spiritual discipline of secrecy, we trust God and God alone to notice our good deeds and to recognize our faithfulness.
So how do we embrace the discipline of secrecy? What practical steps can we take to free ourselves from the desperate desire to look good to others?
Here's one idea. We might start by closing our mouths and keeping silent more often. Because secrecy and silence go hand in hand.
Silence is choosing to be quiet, even when you’ve got something to say.
Silence can look like a self-conscious decision not to talk about yourself to others. Instead of speaking about how you solved the problem at work or how you helped your friend through a difficult decision, you might choose to ask questions of others or to celebrate their good work well done.
Practicing silence helps us realize that our impulse to speak can be controlled. It helps us recognize that not everything that crosses our minds needs to come out of our mouths.
Silence helps us value and hear those around us. And silence in the company of close friends stills our anxious heart. It teaches us that we don't need to worry no one will like us if we don't give them fresh reasons to appreciate us. We can simply savor the gift of our friends' love and presence.
Silence reminds us that we aren't living, breathing social media accounts who need to keep sharing fresh content to stay relevant. We're people, with innate value and worth - regardless of what we say or don't say.
Silence frees us from the broadcast mentality. It releases us from believing that our worth and acceptability is determined by the feedback of others. When we embrace silence, we find ourselves increasingly able us to pause, to reflect, and to hear the still small voice of the Lord.
What if this week, you kept silent about something good that you did in an effort to free yourself from the need to display your goodness to others? Or what if you did a kind thing for someone else silently?
When we embrace the discipline of silence, we have the opportunity to develop secrets - good secrets - that we share exclusively with our Heavenly Father. And there’s really nothing quite like making special memories that only you and your Creator share.
In silence, we train ourselves away from relying on the affirmation and applause of others, and we learn instead how to celebrate closeness with God.
And that, friends, is life-changing. That’s what freedom looks like. That's how keeping secrets could change your life.