“It has been said, by someone far wiser than myself, that nobody is boring who is willing to tell the truth about himself. To narrow this down further, someone equally wise said that the things that make us ashamed are also the things that make us interesting.”
–Douglas Coupland, “Eleanor Rigby”
You don’t know me.
Not really, anyway. I’ve had that driven home to me recently, in different conversations in different ways, as well as some connected theological principles, both of which I shall now ramble on about in my distinctive idiom.
We think we know people, and we think people know us, but, in truth, what we know is a perception, an impression. Now, that impression can be so close to the truth that it functions essentially the same as truth, but that doesn’t mean it is.
Certainly there are the limitations we ourselves place on being known; the barriers we put up around ourselves that keep others from truly knowing us. We put up walls, keep secrets. I read an interesting passage about this subject last year — “People who are secretive and very private are not capable of creating deep, intimate, emotional bonds. Do not romanticize their inability to share as mysterious. It’s not. It’s a sign, a fairly obvious sign, that they have not made peace with themselves. People who are healthy are sharing. They are forthcoming.” If nothing else, I do believe that by being open, we give others the ability to participate and contribute in our lives in ways that make us healthier and stronger.
But recently I’ve also become increasingly aware of the limitations others place on knowing us. We put up filters around other people, and that shapes how we perceive the things they do and say. If we think someone is overly sarcastic, we’re going to filter everything they say through a tone of sarcasm. If we think someone is a liar, we’re going to question the truth of everything they say. Whatever we believe, we’re going to look for things that support that theory. And the opposite is true, as well — if we believe someone can do no wrong, then our filters must figure out a way to make everything they say and do right.
And this can completely undercut the benefits of transparency in being known. It does no good at all to be completely transparent when someone is filtering through a false perception. All the information gets placed in the matrix of that perception, used as evidence in building that construct. A person who should know us best can not know as at all, because all they see and hear is filtered through what they believe.
(As an aside: The flip side is that sometimes the other person does know best. When someone has a picture of us that is different than our picture of ourselves, it’s easy to assume that they’re filtering falsely because they don’t see us the way we do. But people do sometimes see things about us that we fail to see in ourselves.)
The other thing that has been driven home recently is the theological implications of all of this. We can’t know God. Period. Not because He’s not open, but because He’s so … God. It’s too much; it’s too big. We can’t comprehend it. And so we filter. We figure out who we think God is, and then we start making the data fit that matrix.
Labels are probably the simplest way we do this. We call God “Our Father,” and we start fitting Him to that framework. We take a picture of what “father” means to us, and we start taking what we know about God and hanging those facts on that skeleton. If we had a father who was a strict disciplinarian, we find a God obsessed with rules and obedience. If we had a father who was distant, we find a God who is removed from the lives of His children. Etc. And I’ve been seeing this year how much that’s true for other names and descriptions of God.
But the other way we do this is experience. We build a model based on what we see God as having done in our life. A person suffers a lot in life, and assigns that suffering to God. The picture develops that God is harsh and unmerciful. And then that person expects that from God. Or a situation that makes God seem capricious might cause one person to step back and look at the situation again, assuming they must be missing something, but someone else might be able to accept the situation because it fits with the picture of God they’ve developed over the years.
I think a lot of this is rooted in our own expectations and desires. God is faithful; He takes care of us. But that doesn’t mean that He always does so in the way we would choose, in the way we want Him to. I talked to a friend recently whose family has been through some difficult financial times in the past. And in each occasion, God provided, they came through, and things got better. But it doesn’t mean that those times weren’t downright difficult when they were going through them. Or that my friend couldn’t have come up with ways it could have been better. “Well, if God had just ________, we wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with.” It’s easy to step back intellectually and say, “OK, I know God provided for me during that time, and I know I can trust Him.” But it’s also very easy for the heart to say, “God allowed me to suffer, He failed to take care of me the way I think He should, and it’s up to me to make sure that doesn’t happen to my family again.”
And I do that, definitely. It’s become very clear this year that there is one aspect of my life in particular where I judge God not by what He’s actually done, but on what He’s failed to do that I wanted Him to. Logically, I know I can trust Him. Experience tells my heart I can’t.
My goal, then, is to add this to my Live Unconditionally meditation — To view others without conditions, seeing them as they are and not who my filters say they are. To be known unconditionally, being transparent and letting God worry about how others are filtering. To know Him unconditionally, not trying to make Him fit a model of who He might be. And to trust Him unconditionally, not based on whether or not He meets my expectations.
More daunting than it sounds, I imagine. How well will I do? Well, you know me.