On Knowing another

One hardly expects to find enduring truths in television sitcoms, but I always thought that the theme song of the show Cheers provided one: “You want to go where everyone knows your name.” We all want to be known. We don’t just want people to know about us, we want them to know us thoroughly. The reality, of course, is that no one knows us fully – each individual who we invite near sees something of what we are, but because of the lenses through which we look at the world, the assessment and estimation of others is always partial at best.

My wife and I have been married for more than three decades, and we find that while our insight and understanding of each other’s thoughts and motivations are remarkably accurate, there are still significant areas where we remain a mystery to each other. In many ways, the longer we are together, the greater the mystery becomes. I find that to be tremendously exciting: I am privileged to be in a relationship where I am constantly discovering the other. In point of fact, I have found that relationships tend to fail as soon as one party becomes convinced that they have figured out the other.

If we have the privilege of continually uncovering the truth of another, we also have some responsibility for providing an atmosphere of dependable self-disclosure. Rarely is it enough to simply describe self – we must also find a medium that effectively communicates the essence of self: while the medium may include words, it most often includes expressions more profound – touch, gaze, expression, body movement. We must discover what the other can receive and frame our offering of self accordingly. “To the hungry,” Gandhi once said, “God can only appear in the form of bread.”

At times, I have been astonished by the depth of understanding that someone may have of me and my process. A word is spoken, a look shared, an embrace received and I think, “How can you know me so well?” It is almost as though the other was within my mind or heart, sensing my deepest need and providing it graciously. But, of course, their perception is entirely referential, grounded in what behavioral scientists call theory of mind. Most people have the capacity to sense what another may think or feel because it is so remarkably similar to their own experiences of loneliness, sorrow, joy, or wonder. True intimacy is the point at which my theory of the other’s mind approaches their reality. Such knowing is rare and comes at a cost. It requires work and attention and a willingness to set aside the lenses of personal history, unreasonable fear and cultural expectation that we normally bring to our seeing, bringing an often uncomfortable level of vulnerability to our experience of the other. Imagine the trust that comes with the Zulu exchange of greeting – “I see you!” and its response, “I am here.”

To be here, to be seen is to require a lowering of emotional  veils that I use to shield myself from intrusive eyes that would, in their knowing of me, own me to some extent. But knowing another also means recognizing something true about self – my knowing of you is dependent upon my knowing about my own capacity to be outside of self and in the heart and mind of another.

One of my favorite stories from antiquity is the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. Moses is confronted with something unknown, something mysterious, something other. In the exchange that follows, he asks, “What’s your name?” He was asking for more than a polite way to address this other – he wanted some power over it, for to know someone’s name was to exert some control over the other, to possess something of their essence. He was attempting at least to level the field, perhaps even to get “one up” on the other.

The hunger to know another and to be known provided the substance of the music of my adolescence – What’s your name — is it Mary or Sue? To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him. You don’t know me… There were as many hopes and dreams for knowing and being known as there were songs (in all fairness, I have to say that contemporary popular music may dwell on the same themes, but as I seem physiologically incapable of understanding the lyrics, I wouldn’t know).

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says to Jeremiah in this week’s Old Testament lesson. Can that be? Does that somehow have a mysterious or hidden meaning that can be theologically extrapolated to some distasteful concept like predestination? Or was God saying something like the experience that I myself felt when my wife and I were expecting our first child (here I go, making referential assumptions about God) – I knew that this child-to-be (male or female, big or small, smart or dumb) was already adored. I knew that my own life had changed and was now in great measure adjectival to the life yet to emerge. I knew that I was unprepared for the entrance of this other into my life, yet I was desperately anxious for its emergence. I knew what I wanted for this other – health and happiness and wisdom and an ability to negotiate difficulties with ease and someone who would ultimately love this person almost as much as I already did. I had a name (two of them, actually) for this new life, a name that would grow more precious with each speaking (the unused name, incidentally, was later bestowed on a cat who entered my life most unexpectedly).

Perhaps that’s all the text means – not that there is a fixed future with events dramatic or mundane that God already has figured out, but that no matter what unfolds, an unshakeable and devoted bond is formed even in the womb. At least, that’s what it may mean. I don’t know, but I’m just dying to find out.