Our Private and Public Lives Provide Different Kinds of Joy. Here’s Why We Need Both.

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Our Private and Public Lives Provide Different Kinds of Joy. Here's Why We Need Both. | Wit & Delight
Photo by Denys Striyeshyn on Unsplash

I have a secret self. It begins as a secret place—a physical home I can be private. I will tell you what that is—but not just yet. I want to write about the split parts of me: the secret self and the communal self. Both are different. Both need one another. 

As a writer, secluded spaces give me a lot of repose. Unseen movements and dreams open up an area within myself where I can imagine; make space for truth. When I was younger, those private spaces were nature and my diaries. I cracked open that journal and wrote about nothing and everything: detailed accounts of what I did that day, what the weather was like, what I was reading, gratitude lists, and the like. I wouldn’t share my words with anyone. In fact, I wrote a threatening message on the front of my first-grade diary: ENTER IF YOU DARE. 

When I got older, writing was no longer an emotional safehouse for me. I broadened my amplitude and shared my work, a vulnerability that felt right and true. I didn’t write about daily weather patterns anymore or through pointless thoughts. It felt good to open up; mold my musings into truth serum. I connected with other writers and bonded over the world. We saw pain and truth the same way. I had deadlines and urgent editing suggestions.

However, as my writing morphed into a public sphere, I could no longer access that classified space for myself (i.e., the listless, private journal documenting). For a long time, longing for that personal safe space made me listless. I rambled in my career and learned how to take care of physical spaces, like an apartment and a cubicle, waking up early and going through the daily dull drum of domestic life. I wrote copy for ads and explored writing in workshops. My private self was hushed for a while and I craved a secret movement. 

These are the things we do without being exposed. Our bodies aren’t poked and prodded—we don’t need to analyze ourselves or others. Secret movement is our emotional haven.

That’s where horses came in. Riding, being a horse girl, was my secret movement. In my late twenties, I went back to the farm I started riding when I was a kid. A chestnut gelding named Gus reminded me what it was like to love myself quietly. My time spent riding him was mine only, something I practiced privately. The blend of floating dust and musty, sweet-smelling horse nostrils offered the escape I had missed with my scheduled adult writing.

Being around Gus poured a honey-like calm over me, something childlike, and I wondered if horses made me feel like I was journaling about summer camp again. The act of riding sustained my energy and lay a soothing haze on my outer life. Above all, horses had no shame. If I wasn’t ready to show up that day, they didn’t need to either. Gus would rather be eating grass anyway. My secret life made me show up—if anything—for myself.

Courtney Maum writes about her journey of rediscovering horses in her book The Year of the Horses. She references her transition from childhood writing to adulthood writing. “All of the sudden, my creative process, which had been so intimate and solitary, was something for gatekeepers to weigh on and assess.” When she revisited horses in her adult life, they helped her be more successful in her private life. Why? Because they offered an escape. They helped her learn how to breathe. She could write and be present with her family more freely again. The rediscovery was as beautifully simple and complicated as that.

For others, secret movements could be a plethora of things: knitting, running, painting, reading, fussing over the garden, forest bathing, writing music, tending to a rock garden, or pickling vegetables. These are the things we do without being exposed. Our bodies aren’t poked and prodded—we don’t need to analyze ourselves or others. Secret movement is our emotional haven where we can exist as a body and mind. 

In my new favorite book (Writers on Writing, A Bread Loaf Anthology), essayist Robert Pack writes about wording and fame. Within, he scribbles notes about his two inner parts: his private and public life. He references his inner life as the one that tends to his rock garden, the secret life that goes on without sharing he’s doing so. His private world is a pleasure unlike his outer, public life—the one that shares his written work with an audience.

Why do we need both? Our public life and our private life? Because we need space to imagine. And as equally as we need a blank slate, we need the platform to be vocal and publicly vulnerable.

So, why do we need both? Our public life and our private life? Because we need space to imagine. And as equally as we need a blank slate, we need the platform to be vocal and publicly vulnerable. As Maum puts it, we need “a dream to scheme and belong to no one else” and as Pack puts it, we need “critics to help each other know ourselves better.”

Our public and private lives provide different kinds of renewal. While being recognized for our work is essential, keeping selfhood a secret is too. In one realm, our extrinsic accomplishments offer collective inheritance. But, on the other, we don’t create without intrinsic moments. Savory, personal moments give us space to be compassionately conscious of the sources of our joys and sorrows. As Pack puts it, “Good writers need good readers, and good readers must be good listeners.”

Let’s consider writing again. Pack wrote, “Revision means learning through the acknowledgment of limitations and failure. Creation in its largest sense, then, must be thought of as a process of creation, destruction, and re-creation. In this process, we may become aware of powers we did not know we possessed.” I love this. I do. Artistic pleasures require returning to them and reconsidering what we’ve done. And we wouldn’t be able to do that without our private selves. 

Moreover, our private and public selves are for everyone, not just artists. We carry around our public selves in social situations, at work, at family functions, in relationships, and under our own personal scrutiny. Something magical happens when we’re able to leave those places and access the selves we don’t seek after or strive to be. We have to go beyond the wish for approval and public reward.

We must connect with ourselves, and we must connect with others. We must fit together elements of ourselves and wish to be understood. We must reach into our own lives and reach into another’s life. This paradox is essential. 

We must connect with ourselves, and we must connect with others. We must fit together elements of ourselves and wish to be understood. We must reach into our own lives and reach into another’s life. This paradox is essential. 

“At the heart of literary ambition, there lies the wish to name things in their passing, cherishing them more powerfully, precisely because they are passing,” Pack writes. “We are most centered in our lives when we apprehend ourselves in our own vanishing.” This quote could mean so many things. To me, it means that we must have our internal secrets to make external connections. We have to experience life, in its remoteness, before we can threaten our individuality; step out into humility. 

BY Brittany Chaffee - June 14, 2022

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June 14, 2022 7:52 am

I love this! I hadn’t thought about it this way before, and this was really insightful.

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