What complex, multi-layered animals humans are. I am melancholy tonight, thick in the fog of free-floating sadness that follows me around, hovering nearby and descending regularly to envelop me. Thinking about the legions that are contained in each single person, the layers of emotion, memory, defenses, and biology that make us who we each are.
A fascinating article in the Atlantic describes a study of 268 men for 72 years. The study’s lofty goal is to understand happiness. The article about Vaillant, the originator of the study, makes many salient points – it is long but well worth reading. But the one that stuck with me is the assertion that the key determinant of both personality and happiness is how one responds to challenge. The article is thought-provoking as it describes the array of defense mechanisms available to people. Calling this behavior important is not provocative; claiming it is the most important contributor to whether a life is happy or not is. Other than causing me to feel bleak about my own immaturity, I found myself wondering how much of these defenses are hard-wired, and from where and when. Is it possible to, with hard work and effort, retrain these grooves in our head? If so, how? Can someone teach me?
I find it hard to read the article without suspecting that a lot about how things turn out is somewhat random. Yes, self-awareness is important, and there is much to be learned about how we – and those we love – respond to stress or perceived attack. But some of what happens is just chance, luck, fate. The study also makes crystal clear the notion that you must not assume from someone’s outside what their inside looks like – some of those with the most charmed looking lives are the least happy, and vice versa.
We do know that no one gets wise enough to truly understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our lives to try. – Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace
We can only scrape the surface of those we know. As I’ve written before, we all leap to conclusions based on the sparsest of information, but in truth we simply cannot know what happens in the head and heart of other people. And how sad it makes me that we all judge so quickly – I myself am just as guilty here as anyone else. All human beings want, I think, is to be known. We all want someone to say to us: I see you. That somehow in being seen – and maybe not until then – we become real.
I believe the highest goal we ought to have for our relationships is to honor the hall of mirrors that we find inside the hearts of those we care about. To see both the beautiful and the ugly and to reflect both back without judgment. Of course this is hard work; how we react to others is, ultimately, about us. And the flip side: to reveal ourselves honestly, without any filters or screens. This is, maybe, harder yet.
For someone who craves clarity and struture as much as I do, who enjoys puzzles and laundry and tetris and all sorts of expressions of creating order out of chaos, this deep and essential unknowability is destabilizing and scary. I must accept that I simply cannot fully understand anyone else and that I cannot be fully known. It may seem inconsistent, but this craving for organization coexists (and may sometimes be masked by) with an exquisite, occasionally irrational sensitivity.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
When I think of myself, I know how many Lindseys there are. There are many facets to me, and they do not always agree. In fact it is the tension between some of these parts of my heart and head that animates much of this blog. And it is so so rare for me to be in a place or with a person who accesses every layer of me. I think this is the root cause of the vague loneliness that accompanies me everywhere I go, of the haunting sense that I don’t seem to quite fit anywhere. Surely it contributes to my difficulty being present in the moment. Sometimes the loneliness is breathtaking and threatens to swamp me. What will it take for me to feel seen? Known?
Much of the time it is surprisingly easy for me to just fire on one cylinder, to just be one part of me. I hate the ease with which I can be just Mother Lindsey or Professional Lindsey (well she’s pretty JV and doesn’t come out much anymore) or Friend Lindsey or Grew up in Cambridge Lindsey or Princeton Lindsey or etc etc etc. You get the drill. I’ve always held contradictions in my hand, participated in wildly different worlds. But shouldn’t it be harder for me to be just part of me?
It’s as though I am made up of a bunch of little thin slices of a person and have not figured out what the unifying theme is, the way they all work together. Once in a while, in a particular moment (the analogy of finally getting a manual car into gear, the instant transition from jerky to smooth – something I have only done once or twice in my life – comes to mind) or with one of a handful of people I glimpse the unified whole and I think: Yes, oh, okay. I am not crazy. It doesn’t escape me, by the way, that most of the moments when I’ve felt that were with other people and that this implies I cannot find wholeness without a mirror, without being reflected by someone else.
Anne Patchett described this the best way I’ve ever seen in Truth and Beauty: “Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.”
How truly blessed I am to have the handful of friends who speak the same native language. Unfortunately those conversations are the exception, not the rule, so I must learn to live with the tensions that this sense of myself as refracted though a prism creates. Maybe I am just being melodramatic (it wouldn’t be the first time). Maybe this sense of multiple selves, this difficulty identifying entirely with one world, is universal. Maybe it is totally fine and normal. Or maybe it is not. All I know is I struggle with it.
I feel deeply saddened by both my inability to fully understand anyone else and my sense of being very rarely fully known myself. I suppose there is nothing to do other than to be aware of it, to celebrate those few people who do make me feel seen and known, and to ask for their gentleness and empathy as they show or tell me about the morass of things, both flaws and features, that I know they see.