Do We Ever Really Know Anyone?
“When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
When I was very young, I believed it was possible to know a person—really know them—after only a few weeks, or maybe even after only a few nights spent sitting up talking passionately about who we were and who we wanted to be. It was confusing to me that some of those relationships lasted and some didn’t. Even more confusing was when seemingly perfect marriages and beautiful friendships broke up amid horrible rumors. It was, of course, easier to side with the member of the couple that I knew better and assume the other was the one who was lying or at fault or truly the awful person, only now being revealed.
A decade or so later, I began to find myself as the one who was painted as someone I’m not by people who didn’t know me well…and I was appalled. This has happened a number of times now and I’ve never been not appalled. But I’ve learned, through the years, that even people you think you know can hold surprises, deep surprises. Ones that you never know until you reach a level of commitment to the friendship or relationship. And, even then, years pass. The startling fact to me is that most of these people, no matter how close we were in the course of our relationship, were ones I didn’t really fully know or understand until the relationship split apart. Sometimes it split apart with some new revelation and we mended our fences, came together again. In some cases, those relationships have become stronger and still endure. Others, I continue to discover more about who they really are and, more importantly, who they really were during the course of our relationship. Things I never understood then, things that were gaping holes between us that were filled with assumptions, half-truths, sometimes out-and-out lies because at least one of us was not able to look into the abyss, as Nietzsche would call it, and see what was really there.
I often find myself thinking about one of my best friends from many years ago, one with whom I was never able to mend the broken relationship.
Though for a long, long time I was open to it.
Usually, the first people we really know—warts and all—are family. And they usually have no choice but to stick with us because they’re family. They love us anyway. Maybe hate us, too. I saw this in my own family–the unlovable people that I loved anyway–but sometimes could not maintain a relationship with because they were too toxic to be around.
So, of all the best friends, romantic relationships, and other close ones I have held dear to me throughout my life, this particular best friend was the first non-family member that I felt I really knew to her core. It was not who she was at her core that made me end the relationship, but rather, actions that she took that were hurtful to me. I still, to this day, am open to reconnecting with her if she could restrain herself from doing or saying things to me that are hurtful. Until she can do that, there is no place in my life for her. I have to protect myself.
I really knew her, though. All of it. All her fears, all her angers, all her darkness. I knew it all and loved her anyway. Other than her immediate family–parents, husband, children, siblings–no one knew the real her. All of us who were family and like family loved her unconditionally but, one by one, she drove each of us as far away as we could get and still be in her presence. Some, even further than that. The person our community saw and thought they knew was shiny, perpetually happy, wise, a mother figure to everyone she came in contact with, helpful, comforting, a wonderful advisor and listener. This was the mask she put on every day when she walked outside of her house. Even people she’d been friends with for decades didn’t know what was behind the mask. She knew me at that time better than anyone ever had in my life. Knew me better than my mother. Knew me better than my husband. I will say that my last best friend knew me far better, though I didn’t know him as well at the time as I had thought. That came only later.
My friendship with this particular woman was probably the only relationship in my life that we’d both been completely open with the other about everything. I’ve tried that in relationships since and, although I thought I knew the other person entirely, I really didn’t. Not until later and much of it wouldn’t have mattered later. But again, it was actions, not personality that caused that rift.
There is something so utterly freeing about being able to be open with another person about all the things you keep hidden from the rest of the world. I’ve often said that I live my life as an open book with few to no secrets and I do. I share a lot of things publicly that others would consider private. But never the things that truly hurt me or even the things that give me the greatest joy. Those are the things I keep private. Things that I share only with someone that I am that close to or committed to. Regardless of the nature of the relationship. Regardless of the balm to our wounds that that kind of love and closeness can be.
Most of us never really open up that much to anyone else. The things I share publicly are in the past, even if in the very recent past like yesterday or earlier today. Things that I’ve already said and done. But the things that I fear most, the dark places I have yet to go on my own, those I keep for myself…and maybe one or two other people. Like everyone else, I have my secrets and I do tend to keep them very close. Opening up like that requires one to be completely vulnerable and at the whim of someone else’s trustworthiness. There is no guarantee of trust, no matter what the relationship calls itself, that ensures that the other people, in a moment of rage or pain, will not use your own secrets as ammunition against you.
The saddest thing of all is that even though we may know the freedom and unconditional love of being completely open about who we are with someone, once that is betrayed, we are even less likely to be willingly vulnerable again. And so, for most of our lives, we really never know someone else because we never let them really know us.
That’s something I fight against every day: staying open and, with the right people, willing to be vulnerable. Whether they come into my life as friends or much, much more.
These last few months, for me, have been a time of going dark. Not in a bad or evil sense, but in the sense of cutting off communication. I share very little now with the public, with acquaintances, with colleagues, with my outer circle of friends about certain aspects of my life. Mainly because painful things in my past, that I do speak of on occasion, have been used against me by colleagues with motives at cross purposes to mine.
Then again, keeping certain aspects of my life closely guarded is not the same as not allowing myself deeper friendships with specific people. I’m very picky in who I reveal what to. And, sometimes, when I reveal a particular fear or deep pain from my childhood, the other person runs. Or, they noticeably find my dreads to be laughable or they decide I’m not worth getting to know better. And all that is well and good because it’s time I won’t waste with people who aren’t interested in knowing the real me. It’s all worth it because, every now and then, I stumble across someone new who hears my dark confessions and says, “Welcome home.”
Key Takeaway: To truly know someone is to open up yourself to them.