Saturday, February 23, 2013

Can You Ever Really Know Another Person ... And Does it Even Matter?

I've come to the conclusion that, when I'm having trouble sleeping, it's far more beneficial to find something to occupy my time and attention than complaining about not being able to sleep (I do that, too, sometimes, although I've definitely gotten better).

Anyway, last night was a "Facebook-surfing-to-occupy-my-time" way to deal with insomnia (rather than reading or watching TV or whatever), and I found myself intrigued by the following picture I found on my friend Jen's Facebook wall.

I put it on my own wall immediately because I was curious to see how many people knew these things about me, then I went back and filled it out for Jen (I did pretty well, by the way ... only missed numbers 5, 9, and 11).  Nobody has really bitten in terms of filling it out for me, other than a friend opining that "You either possess or partake in all of the above.  It is official, I am omniscient", and that's all well and good.

Honestly, it's not like knowing my favorite candy or my shoe size really means that a person truly knows me. In fact, I would argue that the people most likely to answer these questions correctly in terms of me probably know me less well.

There are people that might not know that Barq's root beer is my favorite soda and I wear a size 8.5 shoe but are aware of the basic gist of my nightmares, who know what my dreams and hopes and flaws and passions are.  I suspect that those people know me a bit better than someone able to look at a couple of pictures and deduce that my natural hair color is brown.

I know, by the way, that this little Facebook game was meant to be silly fun.  I even took it that way (I identified Jen's favorite soda as "Coke (especially with rum ;-))", which was her right answer).

It's just that it got me thinking about the deeper question of whether or not you can ever truly know someone else, and even more so whether or not that even matters.

One of my students asked me recently (shortly after we finished reading John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, in fact) a question that totally blew my mind: "If everybody changes, can you ever truly know another person?"

This young man, a freshman in high school, stymied me with this concept, something I think he was pretty proud of (I am rarely at a loss for words).  He was also fairly incessant about asking me for my insight, refusing to take "I really don't know how to answer that" as an excuse (I cannot imagine where he learned that from ;-)).

Anyway, I finally told him that there's an old saying about how there are three different kinds of friends--friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for life.  I explained that this pretty much went along with his question because, if everybody changes, then you either stop being friends with someone as and/or after they change, that you change yourself as a result of his/her change, or that you are able to roll with the punches and accept that both you and other people are going to change but that, if the person is worth it to you, it won't matter in the great scheme of things.  Basically, you can know another person as much as you need to depending on the situation and taking into account the necessary depth (a family member or close friend would obviously be more complex than an acquaintance, for example).

If you're thinking to yourself, "Geez, Katie, that sounds like a deflection", you're right.  It was.  My student didn't realize it--he was just excited as hell that he'd made me think in a way that was challenging for me--but it was.

So, why deflect?

The truth is, I do not believe you can ever truly know another human being, no matter how much you might think you do or want to.

I thought I knew many and varied friends, family members, and colleagues who suddenly and with neither warning nor reason given essentially disappeared emotionally.

I thought I knew my ex-husband, but the person he hid behind a facade of good humor and gentleness was always buried there; I am actually grateful that the wine brought the monster within forward, because I've come to know that it was always there, that it's there still.

I thought I knew my onetime best friend Andy, and his response to arguably the worst thing that ever happened to me just about destroyed my self-esteem, self-love, and feelings of self-worth.

But I guess the bottom line--and the piece that is very uncomfortable to think about--is that if it is true to consider these things about other people, than you really need to look in the mirror and consider whether they're true about you as well.

And I think they are.  I think they have to be.  Nobody is without sin, error, or general screw-ups.  To quote REM, "Everybody hurts sometimes", but to take it a step further, everybody hurts others sometimes.  It is sometimes completely unintentional and almost always done without malicious intent, but that doesn't change the reality that the biggest danger to the psyche of a human being is another human being, frequently one that you care deeply about.

But that's kind of a negative thing to say to a kid, so I kept my mouth shut and let the old proverb rule the day.

Seeing that pic on Facebook reminded me of my thinking on the subject, though, so I figured I'd share and, as always, ask for your input.

To end on a positive note, I do want to emphasize that I believe most people are primarily good.  The pain they give others is largely accidental, or else tied to a stupid error of judgment.  Speaking for myself, I just wish the love I feel in my heart for so many people could keep any unintentional, stupid spikes of pain from reaching out and hurting others.

I would do anything in the world to help another person, and anybody that knows me is aware that this is true.  But is that dedication to helping others the bottom line of my existence?  Does it wipe out my numerous faults?

So my own bottom line is this: no, you cannot ever really know another person, and no, it really doesn't matter because all human hearts have dark shadows within them, crevices that can hopefully be overcome by love and caring.

What scares me the most, though, is that it is easy enough to look at others, to pass judgment, to know them as well as you can and love and appreciate them for that, hopefully being strong enough to overlook the darkness that lurks under the surface if you do not want to write a person off entirely.

It's turning that magnifying glass inward that is frightening ... but perhaps even more necessary.  

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