Linda Downing

Telling all vs. telling nothing

Linda M. Downing

There is a movie scene in which President Harry Truman's wife Bess has been fielding questions by the press, finally ending with something like: "This will be my first and last interview. You don't need to know me." She acknowledged they might need to know enough about her husband to understand his politics, and then she left the room.

If we want privacy, we must guard ourselves and be willing to be misunderstood. Like so many things under attack, the right to seclusion within one's self is at odds with a Facebook-twittering-blogging culture in which participants not only imagine being stars in their own reality shows but also that we care. Some of us don't - even if it's on a bumper sticker.

Apparently, the government does. We spent much of 2013 enraged over confirmation that the National Security Administration conducts widespread, untargeted, domestic surveillance on millions of Americans. We should be concerned. We are losing our freedoms. However, while we bemoan that fact, we continue to air our personal and private thoughts and activities in mind-numbing, monotonous detail. The government might as well watch; everyone else is.

Trend-tracker Richard Mullins recently wrote that "our lives are becoming more polar." On the one hand, we want to be plugged in to every communication device; on the other, we yearn for a solitude Mullins calls "mindfulness" and a lifestyle affording "chances to unwind."

Self-exposure is akin to thoughts that hit the brain and immediately fly out of the mouth. We are human boomerangs and what we so glibly send forth makes a U-turn right back at us.

That's good if the weapon hurled represents positive thinking. In a new study involving migraine-headache sufferers, Boston researchers subjected patients to truths told as lies, lies told as truths, medicines and placebos, and discovered that above all other factors, our expectations count the most. A placebo thought to be a real drug and a real drug thought to be a fake equaled about the same pain relief.

Maybe it is not the telling all vs. telling nothing that troubles us. Maybe it is deciding what to tell - the telling something. The problem is so many of us seem to want to be told everything. A late December Wall Street Journal article by Anna Maria Andriotis was entitled "10 Things You Don't Need to Buy Anymore." Instead of evaluating our own finances, regulating our own spending, encouraging our own common sense, we gobble a list that starts with cable TV and ends with digital cameras.

In a December column Froma Harrop advocated living a more separate life. She freely quoted from a 19th century essay by William Hazlitt entitled "On Living to One's Self." She touted the joy of being freed from endless chitchat, phony advice, and personal revelation. In short, Harrop was saying we don't need all this as "evidence of one's importance to the world."

The Associated Press recently outed the top 10 givers to charity, a tell-all that gleans them much admiration. From that disclosure to donator name stickers in hymnbooks, the givers had better enjoy the "glory of men" for "they have their reward" (Matthew 6:2), a thing of much less value than a private person's audience and life with the God who already knows all.

Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together-side-by-side.

Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at