Going public

How dreary to be somebody,
as public as a frog
To tell your name the livelong June
To an admiring bog.

– Emily Dickinson

The question came up, “Why do I keep a Web site? Aren’t I concerned about people finding out about me? Wouldn’t people hurt me if they knew about me? Don’t I want to keep my privacy?”

Sorry, but privacy is dead. Our personal lives are exposed in ways George Orwell couldn’t have imagined. If you have a Social Security number, a driver’s license, or a birth date; if you use a credit card, a store club program, a phone, a Web site, and e-mail; if you’ve filed a tax return, gotten married, or filled out a job application — your personal information is out in the open. And when your data isn’t being mined and catalogued, you’re being videotaped by security cameras in stores or on traffic lights. Your car or cell phone may have GPS navigation that tracks your every move. Every day, we’re surrounded by people with camera phones ready to post our mishaps on YouTube. Life in the 21st century is life in a fishbowl.

So, what do we do about it? Is there any hope for those of us who crave privacy? Or does being out in the open have benefits?

Matthew Arnold wrote in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” about the attractiveness of the secluded, private lives of the monks who lived in a monestary. But he warns:

Fenced early in this cloistral round
Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,
How should we grow in other ground?

By cutting off ourselves in search of privacy, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow. We deny ourselves the opportunity to help others by sharing our experiences and ideas.

I believe each one of us has been given certain gifts. The only way that these gifts have value is if we share them with others. Perhaps you have a knack for organizing. After cleaning your closet, sorting your books by size and subject, and filing your paperwork, what do you have left? Why not help someone else who’s disorganized get his or her paperwork in order? Or find a food bank that needs its supplies organized so it’s easy for them to send items to needy people. Perhaps you like baking cookies. Why not make some cookies for a school’s bake sale? If you have a skill for writing, why not share your writing with others who might find benefit from it? And by helping others, who knows how your good deeds will be repaid?

Going public has its risks – the risks of vulnerability, the risk of criticism, and the risk of rejection. But staying hidden is even more dangerous. In times of economic and political uncertainty like these, privacy offers no shelter. Think of the ordinary, private people whose lives have been affected by the recent economic downturn – people who have lost their jobs and homes, the bedrock of their safe and stable lives crumbling beneath them. The only way they can escape from this situation is to put themselves forward, to ask for help, to promote themselves in the job market. To use another line from Arnold’s poem, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born.” The only way we can achieve our birth or rebirth is if we dare to escape the womb and venture into the world.

So, don’t be afraid to go public. The world leaves us no choice but to be in the open, so let’s make the most of it.