I Know Him. Really?

At a recent Peter Meyer concert, my younger son announced he wanted our new CD by the Minnesotan folk singer to be autographed.  Surprised at his desire to initiate contact with a stranger, I stood in line with him to wait for the signing. He presented the CD and asked for the signature, and happily went back to his seat.  I commented on his bold (for him) move of approaching an unknown adult with the request.  He replied confidently, “Oh, I know him.  I’ve listened to his music tons of times.”   Really?

My younger son’s Asperger Syndrome explains his confusion about what is means to know someone.  But the longer I considered his confusion, I realized the concept of knowing another is a bit loose and vague.  I refer to knowing the clerk at our local Barnes and Noble who greets me with recognition and asks about my boys, but I don’t know her name.  I know my next-door neighbors of 12 years but don’t have any understanding of the challenges they face as their children grow to adults and their parents age.  I know my friend of 30 years, S., but haven’t spoken with her in several months due to physical distance and busy lives.  I’ve known my ex-husband for 22 years, yet found myself a few years back feeling he was a mystery and more stranger than friend.  And I know my children, I intimately know my children, having bathed and clothed them and now educating them and nurturing them, yet their inner thoughts are hidden from my view, and I’m often surprised by their passions and fears.

So how do we really know anyone?  Aside from the biblical sense of the term (and I’d purport that one best know a whole bunch about someone before “knowing” them in that intimate sense), I can’t put a finger on the answer to that.  As I’ve pondered my son’s response, I’ve questioned my interpretation of that slippery term.  Obviously I don’t have the same knowledge of the bookseller, the neighbor, the old friend, my ex, and my children.  I’d never claim to know the folk singer we heard, so I suppose some of my definition of knowing someone involves reciprocity of recognition, if nothing more.

As my mind wandered on, I wondered if I truly do or can know anyone.   After all, I’m limited to experiencing others in a specific place and time, and even those who’ve I’ve been around for years have a life outside of their time with me.  And while some of us are generally the same regardless of who we’re with, some folks turn out a different self altogether when changing associates. Sure, we make adjustments in speech and presentation depending on who we’re with. But at some point, changing the level of information shared and formality morphs from appropriate accommodation into something more disturbing.

So how does one tell the difference, and when does one truly know another? Time matters. It’s hard to maintain a facade over time. Seeing someone in a variety of circumstances matters. For example, I may present a different side of me at work (hopefully a more professional side inspiring confidence in my patients), my core beliefs and values are still present. I work to pocket the beliefs on the job but let my values shine through.

Time and consistency seem to be key. I can’t know someone whom I’ve known only briefly and only in one setting. While that presentation may be indicative of their true self (and if they’re well-integrated this is possible), it’s generally not sufficient. I’m suspicious of folks who change personality like changing clothes. I wonder at what’s truly there at their core, or if their self is unknown to them but rests entirely on their outfit and audience.

All of this is light-years away from my younger son’s understanding of what it is to know someone. Age aside, his autistic spectrum disorder leads him to a degree of mind-blindness. Simply put, he sees life from one perspective — his. His point of view is the only point of view, not out of arrogance or even inexperience, but out of neurology. So, goes his thinking, if he’s listened to your music (and liked it), he knows (and likes) you. And you know and like him. It’s a point we’ll be working on over the years.

On the plus side, my younger child is who he appears to be. While most children are more honest in presentation, especially when young, they quickly learn to change personality clothes when around different folks. My younger dons no such armor. He is who is is. Perhaps, because of his neurology, he’ll be a person that’s easy to truly know. The world needs a bit more of that.

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2 thoughts on “I Know Him. Really?

  1. I remember a brief passing conversation I once had with Yo Yo Ma. He said that he liked people who were like Snickers bars. Hmmm? No matter where you slice them, he said, they look the same. There is a lot to be said for finding that kind of existential fixity in a person – and it is quite rare! When you find a friend like that, hide her in your pocket – but don’t keep her their too long, or she just might melt! 😉 More seriously (well, actually, that was serious), I get your wonderings here, and, to twist it a bit, I wonder if we can add ourselves to the list of people we don’t really know? What would that require? – Namaste

    • Aex, I like the Snickers analogy! The knowing of self is on my mind as well, and that should receive some writing attention soon. As soon as I feel I have a fairly good handle on who I am, I act in a way that seems out of character with that mental image. A bit of reflection reveals that that demon within is generally the other extreme of a more “desirable” character trait, just not the side I like to think of as “me”. More on that later. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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