Knowing and being known

I’ve been thinking about friendship. It’s always a dangerous pursuit. I inevitably end up feeling woefully inadequate as a friend because I’m unable to do all that I’d like to do. Or sometimes I end up utterly exhausted because I try to do everything (the fact that this is not possible is still one of my saddest facts ever). So I end up flaking out on people at the last minute which also leaves me feeling like a terrible friend. Ether way, thinking about friendship is a risky business.

Nevertheless, I have been thinking about knowing others and being known by them. This seems to me like one of the things that most people want out of life. If you’re a Christian then you might be thinking that the only person who truly knows us is God. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I also want to say that being known by God is different to being known by a human because we not only want to be known, but we want to see someone knowing us. I want to watch someone care for me without having to tell them what to do; to watch them sit with me when I’m upset and know, without me telling them, that it’s best to sit and be still. I think it’s a different kind of knowing. And it’s this human-human knowing that I’ve been thinking about.

If you know me, then you’ll know that one of the things I hate most is being boxed. ‘Oh, you’re the creative one. The one with the really complex family. You like drinking tea and reading books’. I am all these things, and like all these things, but I am so much more. In my world, boxes = bad.

This happens ALL THE TIME. I was talking with a friend a while back who had just moved into a new house, and she was feeling quite troubled about the people she was living with. She didn’t want them to make premature judgements about her, without knowing all that there was to know about her. I think she didn’t want to be boxed.

I realised a few days ago that I had been doing this with someone. Up until last weekend our interactions had been limited really to just one environment, and we had one way of relating. When we were thrown together in a social situation I was totally thrown. It was like I had never entertained the thought that she existed or had a life and friends beyond our interactions. Suddenly it was like she was more real to me. I suddenly saw her in greater depth. It was unexpected. But good. Knowing more about her helped me to have a greater appreciation of the complex woman that she is.

And then I started thinking. Of course I had never consciously thought that she only existed in our interactions, but maybe that was the problem. I hadn’t thought. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that all people exist in an intricate web of relationships, and have several suitcases full of hobbies, passions and personality traits that we don’t know about. It seems to me that deciphering this web is part of what it means to know someone, and letting others decipher yours is part of being known. And so ensues the endless conversations about your childhood memories, favourite colours and favourite foods. This is how we know people. We tell them stuff and they reciprocate. Christians are great at this, we ask lots of questions of others when we meet them. We gather stacks of knowledge about others and use this information to love them. This is good.

And here’s the controversial part.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds this exhausting. Sometimes I don’t want to leave my room cause I know I’ll be confronted with 45 people who genuinely care. All I want to say is ‘care less’ or ‘care later’. So often I feel like I can’t handle it. Sometimes I don’t want to go to dinner cause someone is going to try and get to know me by asking me deep questions, and to be honest, I just don’t want to share. And then I feel guilty because it seems like I’m not being gracious with my very self. It is costly and exhausting to continually feel obliged to tell people everything about me. I don’t want to have to give people a map to understand me. But I also don’t want to be reduced to the girl who reads a lot and loves tea.

So. My curious thought for the day is whether it is possible to recognise that individuals are more than what we can see, or even what they can tell us, without needing them to explain their complexity to us. Can we move to recognise that people are infinitely more complex than we can ever map or fully understand? Can I simply think that even in the abundance of things I know about my friends, I am only scratching the surface of who they are? Can I internally recognise that they are so much more complex than I know, but not then go on to probe them for information so that I can adequately box them?

I hope so.

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2 thoughts on “Knowing and being known

  1. I’m not sure if it is possible not to box people. Our minds are wired to try to make meaning out of data – by classifying it, linking the unknown to the known etc. But we can certainly try to remember the complexities of everyone and realise that people are going to be constantly breaking out of (or getting lost in) any box we make for them.

    As an extravert (there’s a box for you!) – no, not just as an extravert… as my particular type of extravert (another box – slightly better fitting, but still inadequate!) – I have a real curiosity about people (not all people, alas, only interesting people!) I want to understand them. I want to use my super power (yes, I have one!) to make people feel comfortable and talk. It might seem like a kindness, but it’s not really. I want to understand life and the world and people better and I’m using you to that end. I wouldn’t use anything you say against you – so you needn’t fear that – but really, getting to know you is for my own mental stimulation. So you should sit, drink your tea, smile smugly to yourself and shut me out and not feel at all bad about it!

    • Simone – I suspect you are right about the desire to make meaning out of data. Maybe it’s about finding the line between validating complexity and not fearing the unknown in others and still trying to understand people. Maybe I expect too much…

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