During my time as chaplain at Schiphol airport I was surprised by the number of occasions I was approached by those wanting to make confession before getting on their next flight. Roman Catholics in particular are good at keeping this Christian spiritual discipline and quite often I would have to explain to the confessors that I was an Anglican priest, not Roman. They should know that even though I was happy to hear their confession, I was not likely to conduct the rite in a way that was completely familiar to them. My standard practice was to hear them out, assure them of God’s grace and forgiveness, and pray with them for the Holy Spirit to help them the next time they were faced with their weakness. In not one instance did my not being Roman Catholic prevent the confession from proceeding.
Gaining an assurance of one’s standing in God’s grace before embarking on an arduous journey was motivation enough for many, but over time I became aware of another, stronger factor: anonymity. These people were quite aware of the fact that they were never going to see me again and this knowledge, like too much wine, had the effect of loosening their tongues. They confessed not just your run-of-the-mill sins, but in many cases deeply hidden and never-before shared instances of failure. Not uncommonly, the confession was prefaced with “I have never told this to anyone before…” or “I cannot confess this to my own priest at home because he knows me too well…”.
I am convinced that one of the most far-reaching changes society has undergone in the last half-century is the level and intensity of anonymity afforded to most of us in our daily lives. Urbanization, frequent travel, television and, most recently and perhaps most potently, the internet, have produced a world where we can spend vast amounts of time “engaging” others on our own terms at arm’s length, without ever being known for anything other than what we ourselves choose to disclose. Every day, airports around the world are transit stations for millions of highly documented individuals who are entirely anonymous to each other. This liberty goes to our heads. We feel free to do, say, watch, eat, buy, and confess things we never would when surrounded by friends and loved ones.
I’m a somewhat introverted and private person, so anonymity has a natural pull on me. Not infrequently I would join the anonymous throng at the airport, tucking my security pass into my pocket and heading out to walk for an hour or two, nameless among the nameless. And I have always quite enjoyed a day in the city, where I’m just another face in the crowd. I wonder at times about the challenges of being a pastor in a small town where, as a public figure, such escapes into anonymity are less immediate. It would not be the fear of being caught out by questionable activities that concerns me; rather the constant availability to others who know me – the perpetual openness and effort to know and be known – that intimidates me.
Is anonymity a good thing, or not? Perhaps yes, and no. On the one hand, being out from under the watchful eye of others who know us can be a liberating and enlightening experience, especially for those who have been weighed down by unhealthy social pressure. Consider the relatively high degree of anonymity extended to those finding refuge in shelters for abused women. Anonymity can create space to reflect on one’s identity and find one’s voice. On the other hand, anonymity can become an escape, a drug of choice for those who have grown complacent in relationships or weary of the effort to develop their souls.
The only things we take with us beyond the grave are our own souls and our relationships, with God and with others. All else will be gone. In the end the things we cannot keep were never really ours in the first place. And yet it is exactly the enduring treasures, the things we can take with us, that are diminished by a habitual immoderation of anonymity. Yes, we need space to know ourselves, but we can only truly know ourselves when we are fully known.