Remember how Midas the legendary king of Phrygia had to judge who was the better karaoke singer–Pan the satyr or Apollo the god–and, of course, who’s going to sing better than the consummate party animal? Although Apollo was no slouch, for he was the Olympian god of music and poetry and manly beauty and rode the sun as his chariot across the sky, having taken over chariot duty from Helios, one of Greece’s earlier order of Titan gods, and then trading in Helios’ four nags Pyrois, Eos, Aethon and Phlegon (“the sun,” “the sky turner,” “the grain parcher” and “the burner,” respectively) for Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, Midas, fool that he was, judged in favor of the satyr as the winner of the karaoke contest, so Apollo slapped donkey ears on the old king and got back in his chariot and mushed across the sky.
Midas took to hiding his ears under his Phrygian cap (Smurf hat) but eventually had to go see his barber. When the king took off his cap and the barber saw the ears sticking up he did not gawk, nor did he say, “Would you like your ears lowered today, M’Lord?” Instead, he grabbed up his knives and started working on the king’s hair in workmanlike fashion, folding the ears this way and that as he trimmed around them, holding his hands steady. When he finally finished cutting and dusting and spritzing, the king got up, put on his cap and left without a word.
The barber stood alone looking around his shop to make sure no one had come in, then in a panic beat himself about the head and bent over at the waist and groaned under the burden of the secret he’d just witnessed. He worried how he was going to keep his mouth shut and not tell his wife or the very next customer that walked into his shop about the king’s ears. Then inspired in a flash he ran outside and dug a hole, bent down low and whispered into it that the king had the “ears of an ass.” He covered up the hole so the secret couldn’t get out and ran back to his shop.
Nobody digs holes anymore, but maybe we should. What is it that makes us want to blab every secret confided in us? Is it because once we get past the “Look, Ma, no hands!” stage we have so little to show of ‘merit or worth’ in our lives that a secret becomes precious currency in our eyes, but only if on the sly we can disclose it to others? “Guess what I know, Ma!”
There’s a more recent historical account of a secret well guarded that occurred during World War II. The British had broken an important German encryption code, and only a handful of men were informed of it. A military officer visited each of the men and showed them his pistol and a bullet. He told them that this was the very bullet that he would shoot them in the head with if they ever divulged the secret. This proved at least as effective as digging a hole.
Most of us don’t have such gun-toting guardian angels to help us honor the sanctity of our pledges to keep secrets, which is just as well, because ordinary gossip is not that far removed from secrets, and it would be a bloody mess if people had to choose between gossiping and being shot. The Chinese call gossip the “affairs, big and little, of the families on the east and on the west,” and people of every culture devote large amounts of time cackling over news from these two directions or more. Maybe this “in common” sharing and gaining intimate knowledge of the fabric of our neighbors’ lives is what compels us to tell out our secrets, to spew our guts and spill the beans, then to flash a wink and preen and strut, acting the cock of the walk and a regular doodle dandy, aye, Ma?
Even when we’re sworn to secrecy, still it regularly “slips out” or we “let the cat out of the bag.” “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” said the posters in WWII, but all we say in response is “Oops, it’s not my fault! It slipped out, Sigmund, please believe me, I didn’t mean to do it!”
Oh, didn’t you? Oh, don’t we?