Undoing the double life: The Ignatian unmasking of secrecy

February 20, 2024 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Having a secret or living a double life can seem like the most exciting thing ever. There is constant drama, great excitement, and the thrill of endless concealment. It can seem so easy to deceive people, to pretend to be something else and to maintain a ‘little’ secret. Often there is a justification that it is not hurting anyone, that you ‘need’ it in some way, and that it seems to make life worthwhile compared to a drab and boring existence. What could be wrong with having a hidden treasure, a secret hideaway, or a delicious treat for oneself? Surely you deserve it and ‘are worth it’?

The only problem is that it comes to an end eventually, either in this life or the next life it comes out, and it’s not pretty. There are always consequences, and the fallout can be intense. It can be an addiction, an affair, a harmful compulsion, or simply a secret that no one else knows about. Often the Internet and technology facilitates, keeping things private and out of sight. It can seem to bring great superficial joy and excitement, and there is no denying the thrill of the secret. There is also a level of pride involved – apparent cleverness at maintaining the secret or the double life, and hiding it from others. People can feel that they are smart, that they are getting away with it, but it does demand a huge amount of energy, planning, investment and time. Scientific American » points out that while it is demanding to manage a secret, what is really harmful is just simply ruminating about it in what is in effect a self-imposed isolation.

Ignatius Loyola calls this, a bad spirit, or the work of desolation. It is marked by deception and seduction to some extent and is focused on the self and some personal pleasure or desire. Interestingly, he identifies this superficial level of excitement and emotion, which is only short term, as part of that desolation. This can seem paradoxical in that, it feels great, but it is only short lived and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, one of the key features of desolation is the secrecy, people are deliberately not revealing it to others. Ignatius uses the image of a jealous lover as the bad spirit who wants to manipulate someone by having control over them and preventing them from getting help or advice from others. The insistence on secrecy is part of the manipulation and seduction, knowing that communication and accountability would undermine the ‘secret’.

Ignatius would call this a question of spiritual freedom: the double life appears to be offering great personal freedom (e.g. to have it all) but this is the common misconception that freedom is the absence of commitment and responsibility, a very egoistic and individualistic notion. Ignatian freedom rather underlines the ability to be free of the ‘slavery’ and demands of the ego in order to be free for greater things, the using of one’s gifts in the service of others (where real happiness lies). Pleasure and comfort are good things in themselves, but are good only up to a point, that is, in so far as they bring me to God. Deeper living is the desire, things that really satisfy, not empty distractions or enslaving addictions.

The opposite of freedom is attachment: I can’t move as I’m chained to something ‘small’ that limits what God wants for me. This is the opposite of real freedom. Attachments mean I have to have certain things, I impose limits, I won’t accept commitments and consequences (rather than serve, I want to be served like a god). This is the tragedy of course, that such real happiness and joy is within our grasp and yet we are kept from it by these superficial illusions and deceptions. Unfortunately the world of media, advertising and marketing reinforces a false hedonistic personal freedom.

The key to dealing with this ‘desolation’ is to act against it, even though this is going against your ego feelings. The first step is to unmask the deception that is a key part of it: that this addiction or secrecy is not good and not from God. It doesn’t lead anywhere except to a bad place , sooner or later. It is being led by superficial or false desires, even though this can be hard to see. The other rule of thumb is to break the secrecy by telling someone, obviously this means talking to someone in confidence initially to bring it into the open and get another person’s perspective. Again, this takes huge courage.

The payoff, though is a life of peace and coherence, being able to live with yourself and not having to maintain the facade or double life of secrecy. This is consolation, obviously which is the opposite of desolation. This is living a life of openness, transparency, and integrity. This is not as exciting or thrilling, but it is much more, integrated and livable, and you can sleep at night.