Talking about secrets with my daughter turned out to be more complicated than I expected. A few months ago I asked her to deliver a sealed letter to one of the teachers at school whom I had been unable to reach by email. When K. asked what it was about, I said, “Well, it’s … a secret.”
“But you said you shouldn’t have secrets!”
“This is a different kind of secret,” I said. “I have to talk with her about some exciting news she has to announce, but she hasn’t done it yet, and it’s not for me to steal her thunder ."
I think of all the exciting announcements we may get to make in our lives. “We’re getting married!” or “I got the promotion!” or “His cancer is in complete remission!” I have a friend who has a habit of beating people to the punch with good news, saying things like, “So-and-So is pregnant. Act really surprised when she tells you.”
By spilling the beans, letting the cat out of the bag, jumping the gun – choose whichever phrase you like – with someone else’s joyful news, we rob them of the pleasure of delivering it themselves. I think back to when I told my parents I had decided to adopt: they weren’t the first to know, mainly because we live in different states and it wasn’t the sort of news to deliver by phone, let alone email. If one of my friends had informed them in advance, I would have been crushed. And angry.
“Think of it this way,” I told K. “Remember last Christmas morning, there were all these wrapped presents under the tree, right? And we were guessing what they were, and getting all excited. What would it have been like if Grandma had just said, ‘your mom got you that beanbag chair you wanted – see the big box? And that lumpy one is a pair of snowshoes. This envelope from Grandpa has a gift card to your favorite store.’”
“Not very fun,” she decided.
“Sometimes sharing good news is almost like a gift, one that we want to see unwrapped at the perfect time. So sometimes a secret is only a secret until the right moment. It’s fun to see people being surprised by something good – that’s why it’s so tempting to be the one to do it.”
One thing that social courage can help us with is feeling okay about keeping good news to ourselves. Social courage makes it okay that no-one else knows we were in on the secret. Moral courage helps us to prefer to see the news delivered by the right person, and be met with all the drama and excitement it deserves.
One story about the origin of “stealing someone’s thunder,” robbing them of the chance to make a big impression, has its roots in the English theater. A playwright had invented a clever and innovative way to create a thunder sound effect off-stage for his play. Unfortunately his show bombed; to make matters worse, while attending a performance of Hamlet he heard his technique being used. “Damn them! They won’t let my play run, but they have stolen my thunder!” he exclaimed.
Other sources claim it to be inspired by the Norse god, Thor the Thunderer, whose thunder hammer was stolen and hidden by the trickster, Loki. Note to self: don’t steal Thor’s hammer. He doesn’t have a sense of humor.