Yesterday one of my roommates quickly and succinctly summed me up. “You’re a cat,” she said. She proceeded to explain my personality and the way I interact with people through this metaphor, and everything she said was completely true. I was impressed that, after only living with me for a month, she knew me well enough to provide me with clarifying words about my personality and how it extended into my relationships.
If you had asked me ten years ago if anyone knew me, I would have said no. As a preteen and teenager, I spent quite a bit of time moodily reflecting on the fact that no one could see into my mind, and since I was an introvert, the likelihood of anyone truly understanding me seemed impossible. I wrote sheets of angsty poetry and journal entries about this lack of understanding. But secretly, I kind of liked it. Believing that no one understood me gave me an excuse to be angry, or insulted, or justified my behavior when nothing else could.
I’m not the only teenager in the world to have felt this way. In fact, I’m guessing most teenagers feel this way until they hit their twenties and begin to discover that people are actually pretty similar. The thrilling uniqueness of being a teenager and having crazy thoughts fill your brain at all hours begins to recede into a more comfortable rhythm of grown-up concerns, and worrying about how misunderstood one is starts to fade. Yet being truly known is still, I think, something that catches us off guard.
The older I get the more I am convinced that it is hugely important to be known. Being known means that there are people in ones life who have spent enough time around to see patterns and reactions. People who ask and remember, who have a right to pursue a topic of conversation and dig into the reasons why. People who can encourage or reprimand. People who know enough to be tough.
As an introvert, it’s sometimes uncomfortable when I realize how well someone knows me. There are so many parts of me that I don’t necessarily love, and seeing people I respect identify those parts and know them makes me embarrassed. It would be easier to shut people out, as I did when I was a teenager, and hide behind the belief that people will never fully understand me, so why try explaining myself? But that kind of attitude is neither sustainable nor healthy. We are made to be communal creatures, gathering wisdom from those around us, and allowing others to help when we need it. Without allowing people to know us, we shrivel into what CS Lewis described as the darkest hell: a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.”
Being known does not just keep us accountable, either. Sometimes it can bring great joy. For years and years I resented the fact that people told me I was a loud person. I would argue that I wasn’t that loud, or get annoyed and change the subject. Every time my family mentioned it I thought they were trying to make a dig at me. But only a few years ago I found myself thinking through this truth about myself, and suddenly it didn’t seem like a problem. I sat on my bed and, as I decided to own the fact that I am a loud person, I began to cry. I cried and cried. Because I am loud. And while there are times when my loudness can be awkward or annoying, my loud voice is part of what makes me who I am. It reveals to people immediately whether I am happy or sad or passionate or angry. It is my siren when I return home and my signal that I cannot contain my love. It took me much too long to realize that when people mention my loud voice, most of the time it’s not any kind of judgment. It’s an indication that they have recognized an integral aspect of who I am and they are telling me that I am known.
I am glad to be known. I am glad when other people allow me to know them. I hope, as the years pass, I can say that I am well known by hundreds of people, and that they are known to me. The fingerprints we leave on each other are of much more worth than a closely sheltered soul.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard