Ssh... can you keep a secret?

Can you keep a secret? I can but to prove it, I'd have to break a confidence.

A journalist's job is to convince people to reveal their secrets to the world but sometimes my editor and I agree to leave certain things hidden. Some of these are easy secrets to keep, even heart- warming: an engagement or pregnancy, perhaps too early to be made public. Parents who do not want the world to know that their children are adopted. A woman who insists I write that she is a mother of six, not two, for she claims her stepchildren as her own.

Then there are revelations that astound me, even though I understand and often capitalise on the emotional intimacy generated by an hour or more of intense conversation. I hear halting tales of faltering marriages, sexual inadequacies, mental disorders, of surviving attempted rape or murder - myriad burdens carried secretly.

These are stories irrelevant to the reason I meet the source in the first place and therefore could not be attempts to swing my article in the person's favour.

Why would anyone share his secrets with another person when we keep secrets because we are afraid of being judged by them? The truth is that our secrets define us, shape us with their gravity, grow heavier in silence and solitude and become too heavy to bear alone. A weight is lessened when the secret is shared.

I come from a family of secret- keepers, a fact I realised as a child by the quality of silence that fell as I entered a room where my grandmother or father were entertaining guests. From them, I have learnt what makes a good confidante: the ability to listen without being judgmental or at least without showing your judgment or letting it affect how you treat the other person.

To keep someone's secrets can at first be a thrilling experience because the two of you are united in complicity, through knowledge only you share. This can deepen a friendship but it can also weaken it because the secret-keeper sometimes has to be complicit in a lie that becomes hard to maintain. My innermost circle of girlfriends helped one of us make excuses for an absentee partner for two years until she built up the courage to admit to the rest of our friends that a divorce was in the works. I would do it again in a heartbeat but consistently lying about her situation even to my family, the people I love most in the world, filled me with self-disgust.

The truth is that our secrets define us, shape us with their gravity, grow heavier in silence and solitude and become too heavy to bear alone. A weight is lessened when the secret is shared.''

The role of confidante comes with responsibilities so heavy that some would run miles to avoid it. For others, it is part of the job. Talking to doctors, counsellors or teachers I know, it appears that in spite of the hyper-connected nature of our social-media- addicted society, people young and old are suffering an increasing sense of alienation and loneliness. The offices of those in authority become the only sanctuary where cases or students can unburden themselves. Listening to confessions, helping young adults navigate issues of sexuality and morality, being objective in the face of great pain comes at a huge emotional cost.

I see these friends come to dinner shell-shocked and silent, picking at their food and restored only by quiet, deep hugs, sleep and, eventually, a steeling of the heart.

Who keeps your secrets? Not all of us are lucky enough to have trustworthy friends or relatives who can play confidante and it can sometimes be easier to reveal your darkest truths to an outsider rather than your nearest and dearest. Apps and sites which capitalise on anonymous sharing are becoming increasingly popular. There is the NTU Confessions Facebook site for students to reveal their innermost thoughts or the 10-year-old community art project PostSecret, which updates every week with confessions anonymously submitted on postcards.

Top of the app store is three-year-old Whisper, which allows users to post questions or secrets anonymously and receive replies, public and private. I've spent 24 hours on the app for the purposes of this column and it is addictive, allowing me to play agony aunt to strangers and also in turn confess my murderous thoughts about those who refuse to give up their seats on the train.

Whisper allows users to search secrets posted near their location and those from Singapore range from "Miss you" to my current favourite: "Sitting on reserved seat. To those who feel reserved seats is your entitlement. Ask me for the seat and you shall get it. Otherwise I don't read minds or smell your desperate want for that seat."

Two posts below that, however, is this: "I am chatting w multiple people from a dating site. Never felt more alone."

The immediate impulse is to offer to meet this person for coffee because nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to human connection in real time, in tangible fact. It is the most amazing, freeing, humbling feeling to have at least one human being in your life who will listen to revelations that leave you metaphorically naked and squirming and then look you in the eye without judgment, with acceptance and affection.

We keep secrets to ourselves because we fear revealing our true selves and being shunned. But it is no secret that we are strong at times and frail at others, that we are sometimes angry, or sad, or afraid, or shy, that we are human and not perfectly programmed robots.

I have secrets - we all do. Some of mine may even be yours. The trick is knowing this about secrets: that they really do not keep well in solitude. That the best-kept secret is one shared with one, even only one, trusted friend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Ssh... can you keep a secret?'. Print Edition | Subscribe