John Masterson: Listen, do you want to know a secret ?

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968

John Masterson

'I shouldn't really tell you this, but..." is one of the scariest sentences I know. There is the immediate sensible reaction of telling the person to stop right there. If I don't need to know it, don't tell me. I am terrified of forgetting. Or letting it slip. I would like a weekly reminder that it is still off limits. There is also curiosity. Like Wilde, I know the best way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it.

Like most people I have a bunch of things in my head that are not for general dissemination. Some may be about work. Some about relationships. Some recent and some historical. Some do not cost me a thought. Some I hate because it is difficult to contribute to discussions where you have information that no one else knows you have. It may be something that is irrelevant such as a relationship someone had in the past. Or something very relevant such as they had their fingers in the till elsewhere but I should not know it. Such are the dilemmas of life. Then there are the 'secrets' you have been told by three different people.

In my experience the number of people who are completely capable of keeping a confidence is few and far between. Finally there is the moment when it is no longer a secret and you have to resist the vain temptation of letting it be known that you were in on that ages ago. Sometimes the only way to stay in an inner circle is to pretend you weren't.

Most people will have things in their mind that they will never tell anyone, but they are not so much secret as private. If I had a threesome in Amsterdam last year that didn't do anyone else any harm then that is my business. I didn't by the way, but if I had I would be very selective about who I would tell, and nobody seems like the appropriate number. I am sure I would not feel any guilt. If I had cheated at golf, or in my Leaving Cert and gained an unfair advantage, I would be crippled with guilt. Again, I didn't, by the way. That is the type of secret that is very corrosive and feels like a weight on the mind. It probably does need to be shared. But with whom?

Telling something about yourself is different from telling something about someone else. If you want to admit to your wife, or counsellor, that you had an affair, that is your own business. If it is weighing on you then it needs to be dealt with. One never knows how a person will react to unwelcome information so I recommend the counsellor route first. If you know that someone else had an affair then mind your own business, however much it sticks in your craw every time you hear your friend praise their partner when you know different.

There is research that shows that keeping a secret can result in a lowered feeling of well-being. This occurs when the secret in question is constantly there in the back of your mind. When you are out for a walk you begin to think about it. It keeps you awake at night. It has in a very real sense become a burden. There is a lot to be said for the old fashioned going to confession or the secular equivalent, a counsellor. What each of these listeners have in common is confidentiality.

In the early stages of a relationship as it is getting more serious couples often exchange intimate information. John Lennon apparently demanded of Yoko the names of all of her previous lovers which adds to our understanding of Jealous Guy and "I was dreaming of the past... I began to lose control". There is a lot to be said for a 'need to know' basis for information. I hope Yoko lied.

Here are my rules of thumb. If it is private, leave it there unless you have a good reason to share. If it is a secret, do your best. If telling it would result in unhappiness then you need a damned good reason. If you tell a secret assume that it will not remain secret. And if you are privy to a crime then that is a matter for you, your conscience, and possibly the police. Tread carefully with the lives of others.