The Persian poet Jelalluddin Rumi wrote poems so alive and clear that even today—eight centuries later—they shimmer with freshness. Their wisdom and humor are timeless; whenever I have an a-ha moment with one of Rumi's poems, I feel connected to the people throughout the ages who have climbed out of their confusion on the rungs of Rumi's words.
In several of his poems and commentaries, Rumi speaks of the Open Secret. He says that each one of us is trying to hide a secret—not a big, bad secret, but a more subtle and pervasive one. It's the kind of secret that people in the streets of Istanbul kept from each other in the 13th century, when Rumi was writing his poetry. And it's the same kind of secret that you and I keep from each other every day. You meet an old acquaintance, and she asks, "How are you?" You say, "Fine!" She asks, "How are the kids?" You say, "Oh, they're great." "The job?" "Just fine. I've been there five years now."
Then, you ask that person, "How are you?" She says, "Fine!" You ask, "Your new house?" "I love it." "The new town?" "We're all settling in."
It's a perfectly innocent exchange of ordinary banter; each one of us has a similar kind every day. But it is probably not an accurate representation of our actual lives. We don't want to say that one of the kids is failing in school, or that our work often feels meaningless, or that the move to the new town may have been a colossal mistake. It's almost as if we are embarrassed by our most human traits. We tell ourselves that we don't have time to go into the gory details with everyone we meet; we don't know each other well enough; we don't want to appear sad, or confused, or weak, or self-absorbed. Better to keep under wraps our neurotic and nutty sides (not to mention our darker urges and shameful desires.) Why wallow publicly in the underbelly of our day-to-day stuff? Why wave the dirty laundry about, when all she asked was, "How are you?"
The irony of the open secret