Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Keeping their secrets

OVER THE PAST year or so, three people whose life stories I got to hear in uncommon detail have died, leaving me as the keeper of some of their most intimate memories. I had encouraged them to be candid during the many hours we spent together, talking about their lives for projects aiming to capture some of their experiences and lessons. They were. After their departure, I’m left with strange feelings bouncing around inside.

“I need to know more so that I can say less well,” I told each of them at the start of our collaborations, explaining in advance why I might push them for further information about certain situations and circumstances. My intention was not to be intrusive, I said, but I needed to understand clearly if—when appropriate—I needed to be able to be vague, convincingly. You can always tell when someone is skirting around the edges without knowing what’s in the middle.

That’s part of the art of memoir—being honest enough without being unnecessarily graphic. While your story is yours to tell, sometimes there are other people to consider when weighing the possible impact of your revelations. You can be authentic without having to reveal everything. Indeed, one of the mistakes some tell-it-all writers make is failing to understand the difference between sharing something bravely and brazenly.

Somewhere along the way, each of the three clients I’m referring to must have gotten comfortable enough with me, or maybe just forgotten our conversations were on the record, because they each spoke unguardedly about different times during their lives. Struggles, hurts, shames. One of them even recalled with me things he said he had never told anyone else—ever.

Their passing reminded me of the fleeting nature of this life. Each had experienced and achieved things that had impacted many others’ lives for the good, and here theirs were, over, just like that. As James 4:14 says: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” None of them saw the fulfilment of all they were hoping for and working towards.

Their deaths also reminded me that we’re all a mixed bag. While each of these people was remembered fondly for their contributions—and rightly so—they also had their share of failings, regrets and unresolved stuff. If anything, that made me more appreciative of what they achieved. Though we are probably all less than we would really like to be, at the same time we’re more than we may recognize when we look at our worst moments.

And, finally, I have been reminded of the gentle grace of God, taking people from bruised backgrounds and working in and through them to bring about His hope and healing. And that, even if we put what we think we should into a book, none of us ever really gets to tell our full story this side of heaven.

Such episodes can only be shared in the light of renewal and restoration, when there will be no more room for tears or regret. Maybe that’s why we are going to need eternity, so we can savor the fullness of everyone’s story. In the meantime, I will hold their secrets close.

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