Privacy and a Sense of Self
August 1978

“Privacy and a Sense of Self,” Ensign, Aug. 1978, 53

Privacy and a Sense of Self

As a college student, I learned that private things, private places, and private thoughts are related to sacredness.

As a college junior, I sat in a branch conference where the theme was “Reaching the ninety-nine through the one.” Talk after talk emphasized the importance of putting people before programs, of being sensitive and friendly toward the lonely and inactive.

Toward the end of this motivating meeting, someone behind me whispered, “Maybe the little lost sheep strayed away from the ninety-nine for some privacy.”

Flippant as this idea may seem, we can probably empathize with the comment. A campus is crowded with buildings, the buildings stuffed with people, and the people full of ideas, facts, and feelings. A lot has been said about how easy it is to feel drowned in a stream of strangers, particularly at college. But not much is said about the need for privacy.

As a student, I learned to value three kinds of privacy: private things, private places, and private thoughts. And I learned that, in these areas, the word private is related to sacredness.

Sharing is important in college—but often it is not possible without an accompanying respect for privacy. Roommates share the kitchen, books, maybe even clothes. Although things are not more important than people, certain things are important to people. So, in respecting others, we respect their private possessions. Out of respect for my roommate, I wouldn’t read her journal or personal mail. Out of respect for the person, we shouldn’t borrow first and ask later.

One apartment I lived in had an in-residence Cookie Monster with a penchant for chocolate chip cookie dough. Karen, another roommate, often mixed up a batch of cookie dough and stored it in the freezer to be baked whenever we had visiting dignitaries, anything hungry and male. It was frustrating to anticipate those warm, chocolate treats and then find the freezer bare.

“All right, you guys! Who stole my cookie dough?” Karen would yell, dramatically positioning herself in front of the refrigerator as if to say, “No one gets anything to eat until someone confesses.” Well, no one ever admitted to the crime, which continued through the year. This made it hard for Karen to want to share.

When we take something without permission, we not only deprive that person of some of his privacy, but also an opportunity to be unselfish. We may, in fact, encourage the opposite reaction: “That’s the last time anyone ever uses my car!”

Besides asking before we borrow, appropriate sharing involves giving back more than we take. If I borrow a car, I return it with a full tank of gas. If I borrowed the blouse Sharon’s brother gave her, I’d wash it before putting it back into her closet.

You may have already figured out better ways to show respect for private possessions. These rules are mosaifications of a higher law—respect for people. That law is the basis for the other two kinds of privacy that are important—private places and private thoughts.

At the end of his discourse on prayer, Alma says, “But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.” (Alma 34:26.) But college life—and some private homes—may not allow for secret places.

One frustrated friend of mine describes the situation:

“Handel had to hide out in his attic to compose music, but at least he had an attic. Where’s my garret? Where is the quaintly furnished little corner where I can compose music or poetry—or, if I’m not so culturally inclined, where I can just get my homework done without a lot of interruptions? Where are the book-covered walls of my dreams, the overstuffed chairs and high ceilings and the dark wood where the works of half a dozen philosophers, not to mention writers and artists, had their beginnings?

“Enos went out into the woods to pray because his soul hungered. Joseph had a grove of trees right in his own back yard. Even David O. McKay had a serviceberry bush, and, if not a car, at least a horse for transportation. What do I do when my soul hungers? I go into the bathroom and turn on the fan. I haven’t got time to climb Mt. Sinai; I have classes tomorrow.”

We need solitude to find out who we really are. As one freshman explains, “My feelings about myself depend a lot on the people I’m with during the day. And because everybody’s different, I get as many reactions from people as there are mirrors in a fun house, all of them a little bit distorted. But in the prayer relationship, which offers a true reflection, I cannot be deceived unless I fool myself. Being alone—with just me and my Heavenly Father—helps me understand myself and where I fit into the big picture.

“It’s a lot like test day in choir. For several weeks you’ve been singing the music with the whole class. Near the end of the semester the teacher takes you aside for a personal performance. Only then, singing alone, do you find out how well you know your own part.”

Many sacred experiences have occurred in solitude. Samuel was alone when the Lord called to him. Hagar was comforted by an angel in the desert—and Jacob wrestled there with a heavenly messenger. The brother of Jared spoke with the Lord cloaked by a cloud. Moses received his vision on a mountain top. Enos prayed from a forest.

The Savior’s greatest trials came when he was alone, in the wilderness, on the cross, in Gethsemane. And he often took time apart for prayer and meditation. When he learned of the death of John the Baptist, he departed “into a desert place apart.” Not understanding how sorrowful Christ must have felt, many people followed him. Instead of scolding the crowd, he blessed and fed them; but later “when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray; and when the evening was come, he was there alone.” (Matt. 14:23.)

If you don’t have time to climb a mountain, or if there isn’t one nearby, try taking a long walk. One solution that worked well for me, until my roommates started doing it, was to get up earlier than the rest of the world.

Ellis R. Shipp, one of the first women doctors in Utah, used to wake up at 4 A.M. (She went to bed at 9 P.M., by the way.) She studied for three hours before her large family awoke. “To me, the bright beautiful morning hour is the most delightful part of the day, and they who sleep it away lose half the charms of life,” she wrote in her diary. (The Early Autobiography and Diary of Ellis Reynolds Shipp, M.D., comp. and ed. by Ellis Shipp Musser [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1962], p. 210.)

Everyone needs the opportunity for secret prayer and meditation away from family members or roommates who can be heard even above the hum of a bathroom fan or through a closed bedroom door. Respect the rights of those who are praying or who just need a few moments to think in silence. Moments alone can be some of the most precious in our day.

We also need a place for private thoughts within our minds. We need to learn to keep confidences with our Heavenly Father and to respect the rights of others to hold some things sacred.

I have participated in various kinds of leadership seminars and discussion groups designed to teach us to communicate honestly with one another in a sensitive way. Even though everyone carefully avoided negative comments, I still felt that there was present an uncomfortable pressure to reveal innermost emotions. It became embarrassing to admit that certain feelings were special and I didn’t want to share them.

Leaving the room after one such session, I wondered how many regretted their fleeting confidences, shared in an atmosphere that loosened their tongues without quickening their minds.

This same kind of social pressure encourages the boisterous “rap” sessions after a weekend date. An urgency to impress, to “tell all,” remains when friends get together to tease and to talk. We shouldn’t condemn lighthearted fun or deep conversations. It is true that pie-pan acquaintances can deepen into friendships only when we invest time, trust, and laughter.

But silence is sometimes better. Sometimes it’s better to hold special experiences inside, within our own personal temple. Sometimes it’s better not to repeat the intimate conversation you had with your companion, even if he didn’t warn you not to tell anyone else. Sometimes it’s better not to share the details of a blessing. Sometimes it’s better to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Why this sacredness, this privacy, in the area of thoughts too?

“There are some things just too sacred to discuss,” explained Elder Boyd K. Packer in April 1971 conference. “It is not that they are secret, but they are sacred; not to be discussed, but to be harbored and to be protected and regarded with the deepest of reverence.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Spirit Beareth Record,” Ensign, April 1971, p. 87.)

Mary, the mother of Christ, knew how to harbor sacred thoughts. How excited she must have been after the angel Gabriel told her that her first baby would be the Son of God! But when the shepherds came, rather than add to their praise by telling what she knew of her son’s divine origin, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19.)

She showed a spiritual respect, a reverence for sacred things. Any confidence, whether revealed to us by a friend or through inspiration, is sacred.

Brigham Young counseled: “The man who cannot know things without telling any other living being upon the earth, who cannot keep his secrets and those that God reveals to him never can receive the voice of his Lord to dictate him.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, 1966 ed. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954], p. 41.)

This does not mean that sacred experiences should not be shared; on the contrary, some deeply personal testimonies of the Savior have been given for the world to hear.

At the end of a talk at Brigham Young University, President Harold B. Lee said, “I bear you that sacred testimony, that I know [the Savior loves us] with a witness that is more powerful than sight. Sometime if the Spirit prompts me, I may feel free to tell you more.” (Harold B. Lee, “Be Loyal to the Royal Within You,” Speeches of the Year, 1973 [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1973], pp. 103, 90.)

We, too, can know when and if to share something close to our heart. If we are to share it, we need to check with the Lord before we speak, and he can prompt us by the Holy Ghost. And as we learn to preserve our own privacy and respect the privacy of others, we may find that we actually have more to share—more time, more understanding, and more commitment.

  • Maureen Ebert Leavitt, homemaker and mother of two, serves as Sunday School organist and Primary teacher in the San Jose Fourteenth Ward, Santa Clara California Stake.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten