SOMETIME THIS month, I will receive -- from a stranger -- a postcard with a personal secret. It will be the 100,000th secret mailed to me in less than three years.
I started the PostSecret project by passing out 3,000 self-addressed postcards inviting people to share a secret with me, something true and something never before revealed. But even though I stopped handing out postcards long ago, the secrets continue coming to my mailbox. Every day, I receive between 100 and 200 handmade postcards.
Many of the secrets are extraordinary. I received one not long ago written on a Starbucks cup that had been stamped and addressed to my home. The secret read, “I give decaf to customers who are rude to me.” Another postcard arrived with an image of two towers and smoke: “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”
My favorite secret was one I never got a chance to see. It came from a woman in Texas, and it arrived by e-mail. “Dear Frank,” it began. “I was inspired to mail you my secret. I purchased a special postcard and chose my words carefully. I thought I would feel better when I completed my card, but when I saw my secret, I felt horrible. I tore up my postcard and decided right then to change my life so I would no longer carry that secret.”
I like this story because it reminds me of a similar moment of self-recognition. One day, I read a secret that reminded me of an experience I suffered through in the fourth grade. I had not thought of this particular humiliation as a secret, but I had carried it privately for 30 years. Inspired by the courage so many strangers had shown me, I told my secret to my wife and daughter. I then put it on a postcard, mailed it to myself and felt for the first time that this secret was no longer keeping me.
I consider myself an accidental artist. I have no artistic training or education. I live in a suburb with my family and have run a small business for more than 15 years. When people, including my wife, asked me why I was soliciting secrets from strangers, I could not even come up with a satisfactory answer for myself.
But now, with hindsight, I think I know part of the explanation. At a level beneath my own awareness, I was struggling to reconcile with a secret in my own life. And through the self-awareness and strength of strangers, I was able to acknowledge and accept a part of my life that I had been hiding from.
I think of each postcard I receive as a work of art. Some appear to have been scrawled in a few seconds, like the one I received written on the face of a $1 bill: “I am afraid to die.” Others appear to have been painstakingly created as if the person was using the postcard to represent something much deeper, perhaps a search for grace, absolution or authenticity.
To ask if the secrets are true or false is like asking if a painting or a sculpture in a museum is fiction or nonfiction.
From reading tens of thousands of postcards, I believe that all of us carry at least one secret that would break your heart if you knew it. And if we could just remember that, there would be more understanding, compassion and peace in the world.