I was not born with a great deal of discretion, so it came as a bit of a revelation when it was suggested to me that it is an asset that may be acquired. Like my natural tendency to worry, my lack of discretion seemed like a flaw I was doomed to live with. The problem with these "flaws" is that we are aware of them and the toll they take on our happiness. But when something is as natural to you as breathing, it doesn't really occur to you that you can change it. And when you realize that you actually can change things you don't like, it's very empowering.
Several years ago, after the divorce, I was shopping at Paper Skyscraper, a little shop in Charlotte that makes one feel hopeful, and I found a little self-help book called "Creating a Charmed Life" by Victoria Moran. Now, I should say that I don't put a lot of stock in self-help books, but I have to say that this little book changed my life. Don't get me wrong, I changed my life, with a lot of hard work and the desire to change, but this book provided a road map and often, when I really needed it most, a pep talk and a reassurance that I could build the life I wanted, that I needed. Part of it's greatness is that it breaks down the elements of happiness into short, easily digestible chapters.
One of the most revelatory chapters in this little book discusses the acquisition of discretion. I think about it almost every day. Before I read it, I'm not sure that I could have articulated the amount of distress that I caused myself by running my mouth or by the mental acrobatics that went on in my head while my mouth was running. And I revealed too much. Partly, I think I did it out of nervousness, out of unease in my own skin, out of a desire to ingratiate myself to others, out of a misguided belief that I should be "honest" with whoever I was speaking to, whether they asked for or deserved complete candor from me or not. I also used to feel that I had to be absolutely "honest" with everyone and I felt that a conscious decision not to reveal something was somehow wrong.
Now, I feel almost completely in control of the words that come out of my mouth. If I say something now, the odds are that I know exactly what I'm saying and that there is a reason why I'm saying it. Moreover, the idea that I can decide exactly what to say or reveal has been incredibly liberating. Several years ago, the idea that I could sit, smile, nod and not reveal anything that I was thinking was unthinkable to me. Yet I do it now, all the time.
Yesterday, I had a business meeting with a colleague whom I have known for a while and who I like. We had some time to kill and he began to tell me about how he had attended the Glenn Beck "Take Back America" rally in D.C. last weekend. Frankly, I was horrified. But my colleague's political leanings (and for that matter, mine) are not the point of this post. One of the decisions I made when I began to acquire discretion was that I would not discuss my politics, my faith or my personal "ACC Hierarchy of Hatred" at work or with people I didn't know well. In my opinion, nothing good can come of it.
So I listened politely while my colleague told me all about Glenn Beck and limited my comments to questions about his accommodations, the number of people on the metro and the route he chose to drive home.
I think about discretion a lot when I choose what to write in this blog. I am concerned with revealing too much of myself, just as I am concerned with revealing anything about my friends and my family.
I have, after much struggle, found my way to solid ground in my own quiet and precious life. There are those who know the whole, sordid tale; there are those who know bits and pieces. The decisions I make about who to let in and to what extent are made with thought and regard to those things about which I am no longer willing to negotiate -my home, my work, my friendships and my Beans. The acquisition of discretion has allowed me to navigate the world with more comfort and control and respect - both from myself and I think, from others. I feel safer, I feel better able to protect my life. I feel more content in all my relationships.
Discretion itself seems to be falling in popularity here in America. Teenagers reveal every aspect of their lives on Facebook; celebrities and others air their dirty laundry and petty grievances on Twitter. Some bloggers have blogged about the intimate details of every aspect of their lives (and the lives of their families and coworkers) and become famous for it, but at what price? It seems that some people are willing to sell any shred of themselves for any type of celebrity or money available from the highest bidder and that's a shame. I think something has been lost along the way.
The thing that I do know is what I have gained as I've gained discretion. And I'm happy to know, in the only place that it's important, that it's not for sale.
Image: Lillian Bassman