Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?
We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?
– Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The question of how to know another person has been haunting me lately.
I’ve been thinking about the process of getting to know someone as something scientific, as a formula of sorts. When you want to get to know someone, you listen to what they have to say about themselves and you are able to form a sort of understanding about them based on what they expressly tell you they are. Once you have that foundation of knowledge you start making inferences, picking up on the subconscious things that they do and say to deepen your understanding of them.
It all seems like a straightforward and logical progression, like the Scientific Method of human interaction. But human interaction is not really anything like nature unfolding organically. It’s difficult to believe that anyone could act naturally all of the time, because natural is an act. I think it’s safe to say that the way humans interact with other humans is based in large part upon fear of judgment or alienation, and the desire to project an image of themselves that will be favorable to others.
Taking that into consideration, is it possible to understand another person if what they project, and what you perceive, isn’t a mirror-image of their inner essence? It’s not difficult to be overdramatic or to downplay your suffering, or to make yourself look self-deprecating or confident, depending on what reaction you’re trying to elicit from another person. And that is what concerns me: all of the power lies with the person that the other person is trying to understand.
And it seems that what makes us think we can truly know someone is our earnest desire to know someone, to love someone, to believe in someone, to trust someone. But isn’t that just naivete? I’m the type of woman who often feels skittish around men I don’t know because I’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of their intentions and assume that they’re a rapist or serial killer, or at least have the potential to be so (thanks, Mom!). But think about how many women have succumbed to death at the hands of a man, whether it be a husband or a boyfriend or a relative or an acquaintance, because they believed they knew that man well enough to know that he wasn’t capable of killing them. What about the Craigslist killer? Women were murdered because they believed, or maybe wanted to believe, that this man was okay and that he was what he said he was. They bought into the image that he projected and ended up paying for it.
I always worry that I’ll end up with a Dexter, who is so good at faking normalcy that no suspects that he has a really twisted dark secret life. But how would I ever know? Ay, there’s the rub.
And that makes me wonder: is ignorance bliss when it comes to knowing another person, as long as no one is getting hurt? is it sufficient to simply think that you know someone? I don’t have an answer to that question, although it leads to another question: how much of being able to be understood is tied up in being able to understand yourself? I’m starting to believe that maybe being able to be known is contingent on your level of self-knowledge, like you have to know yourself like the back of your hand to be able to project an accurate image of yourself to someone else. But at the same time, you have to be committed to being honest and not censoring yourself in front of someone else to really be known. I believe that one can commit themselves to being as transparent and natural as possible in their speech and actions, but can one really know oneself like the back of their hand? Is it possible to have yourself entirely figured out, or can we only figure out the things that we can see, the things that are apparent to us? Do you see why I’m tortured by these thoughts?
These tortured thoughts manifested themselves in my dreams last night: I dreamt that my parents told me that I was adopted and that they thought I should meet my birth parents, and when I met them, I knew I was supposed to like them and possibly even love them, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I knew nothing about them and that they had been absent from my life for twenty-three years and that I had little sisters that I never even knew existed until I saw them hugging the legs of my birth parents, who were trying so hard to be excited to meet me and get to know me, but who eventually got listless and bored and simply waved goodbye from the couch when I left. How depressing, right? I think the really tragedy of this dream is how betrayed I felt by my parents, the people I’ve known my entire life, for thinking they knew best when they withheld the fact that they didn’t actually give birth to me FOR MY ENTIRE LIFE. And this dream was really overdramatic, but I think it reinforces what I’ve been ruminating on in terms of understanding other people. I love my parents and they love me, and they accept my eccentricities and think I’m funny and call me out when I’m wrong, and I’ve known them my entire life because they created me, but I don’t think even they understand me wholly, or understand my essence, as Murakami puts it. And if they can’t, I don’t know that anyone ever can.