The indescribable comfort of being (well) known

Just last week, I was telling my wife, Franny, how exciting I have become about writing.  Ideas and images fill my mind.  Words are my friends.  I hold them to me as though they are palpable. They know no bounds.  They slip into my mind when I’m driving, walking, going to sleep.  Every day feels like I’m learning more about the craft.  There’s a passion that has taken me over at an age when I expected to be cooling out.

As I talked, I noticed a familiar, sly smile on Franny’s face—prelude to a full scale roast.  “Oh,” she began, “this is nothing like when you built all those organizations, built the house in New Hampshire, wrote your books.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  My defenses began to rise—she was making fun of me, after all—but quickly fell away, and I began to laugh with her.  My pleasure in feeling known, and being known lovingly, overwhelmed the defensiveness.

We do this for each other.  We know the characters and the narratives in each other’s lives.  We don’t have to be caught up, filled in, or taught.  We’re almost always ready for the next episode.  It’s an unspoken intimacy that the books on love don’t attend to enough, yet it offers an indescribable warmth and security.  Even couples in the midst of difficulties often find comfort in being known.

I was a couple therapist for about thirty years.  And I taught the craft to younger clinicians for twenty-five of those years.  The object was generally to help couples work out problems, regain—if possible—their lost passions—and to become better friends to one another.  Nowhere in the standard clinical curricula we assigned was there much in the way of people bearing witness to each other’s lives.  Yet, with each passing year, I have come to appreciate this simple, quiet action as one of the most powerful and enduring qualities of long relationships.

Bearing witness is not the sole possession of marriage.  Friends, siblings, and colleagues also get to know us, develop stories about us, and place current events into those stories.  The importance of siblings, generally our longest relationships, often grows over time. They share our memories; they embody the continuity of our lives.  Recently my cousin Jonny said that his life could be divided into three phases: youth, when family was closest; adulthood, when friends and colleagues took center stage, and old age, when the centrality of family re-emerged.  Now he ached for the safety of his children and grandchildren and felt almost held by those who have known him, over the decades, as pretty much the same old Jonny.

I think what he means is that his sense of security depends in good part on being recognized, known and appreciated over time.   Let me elaborate that point.  Our identity, our sense of who we are in the world, is made up of narratives we build in order to define who we are in the world.  Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust, puts it:  “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover — or invent — consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”  When people confirm these stories by action or word, they make us stronger, surer.

People don’t always share our preferred narratives, which can be disruptive and painful.  What then?  We negotiate with them until there is a tacit agreement about who we are.  “I’m a person to trust,” we might say, and with time and experience, they may believe us more or less. With each new setting that we enter and with each new stage of life we begin, the narrative must be adjusted.  Sometimes this is a relief, as when we move from an unsatisfying work situation or relationship into one with greater potential to become and to be seen as the person we want to be.

These negotiations are partly intentional but also take place below the level of consciousness.  For instance, when we meet a new person, we often tell our life story.  We don’t think of ourselves as inventing the narrative, but we do find ourselves emphasizing things we like about ourselves and de-emphasizing or excluding what we don’t.  These new encounters present opportunities to re-invent ourselves.  But only partly. The stories are largely the same.  They become filters of sorts between what’s most deeply inside—hidden or protected or barely known—and how we want to be seen.

The socio-linguist, Charlotte Linde, puts it this way “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”    These stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.”

Let’s return to the experience of bearing witness.  There may be not a more reassuring experience than when an important person in our life consistently assures us that the person we think we  are and want to be is essentially the person we really are.  For that moment, we need not even revise or negotiate.

However, and this is a big however, being known is not always comforting.  It can also be disconcerting, infuriating, even frightening when people, like spouses, relatives, and friends, “know” you in ways that you don’t want to be known.  You might want people to love your energy, but they see you as frenetic and unfocused.  You might think yourself kind but others find you ingratiating.  When key people “know” you “incorrectly,” and when you can’t convince them otherwise, through word or action, then you either enter an identity crisis—who am I—or you distance yourself from them.

Being “known” can feel like a prison. For example, when people don’t expect much of you, you often don’t produce.  When people see you as irrational, you often fall prey to that expectation.  In other words we either accommodate to expectations—how we are known—or run from them.  This is frequently the underlying cause of divorce: the need to escape debilitating or dismissive views of ourselves.  So, too, the rebellion or flight of teenagers, who want to be taken seriously and as separate people, not extensions of their parents.  Escaping the prison of being known presents the possibility of being known by others in a more positive and enabling light.

The way that we bear witness to another person’s experience can be ignorant because we haven’t taken the time to really know them; and it can be self serving.  We know them in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  For instance, their flaws make us feel more virtuous or superior.

But bearing witness can also be life affirming.  It is affirming when it is generous, when it seeks out the best in a friend or spouse.  It is affirming when it is capacious, that is, when you recognize who the other person is and you know that you don’t see all that the person is.  This gives them room to change and grow.  To bear witness well means opening  the prison doors and letting go of the rigid or self serving views that we hold of others.

Bearing witness generously is important through the life span but it may be most important to people in the midst of life transitions.  This is where old people, midlife travelers, and adolescents, for example, share a heightened intensity of experience.  Each of these cohorts may have been assessing their lives, very conscious of how they are seen—known—and very much needing encouragement to move confidently into the next stage of their development.  The comfort of being known by someone who really likes who you are is immeasurable.