april 24, 2007
Maybe most long-term relationships develop similar weirdnesses, I don’t know. But I do know that every few years my husband Scott latches onto a phase that he repeats several times a day for no discernable reason. In the late 1980s, when we first moved to Maine, he started waking me up by saying, “These are the things we’ve come to expect from you. These are the sorts of things.”
Throughout the middle years of the last decade, whenever he entered a room, I’d hear, “You don’t care. You don’t care. I know you don’t care.”
“You got that right, bud,” I’d say without looking up from my book.
A few months ago he invented a new line that I find entertaining.
Out of the blue he’ll catch my eye and say, “I know the truth about you.”
Now this is someone I met when I was a 17 year-old college freshman. He knows a lot about me, but despite all we’ve shared – twin sons, several house renovations, his middle-aged scooter obsession, those few bad months when he was senior warden and the person renting the rectory was keeping a secret flock of chickens, all this day-to-day life for more than two decades – he can’t begin to know the truth about me and he knows it. That’s why it’s funny. That and because we both know that the truth about me, known and unknown, is not outrageously exciting.
Last June at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention I found myself alone in a hotel elevator with Martyn Minns, the newest Virginia-based bishop in the Anglican Church of Nigeria. I could have asked him anything in this intimate space, (I am, after all, supposed to be a church journalist,) but what I heard my idiot-self say was, “I have a son named Martin.” Now this is indeed true, but who the hell cares? After a second, I caught myself and added wryly, “but we spell it the traditional way.”
So for a few moments before the elevator stopped for more passengers, we spoke about the return to old-fashioned names. He told me his children were naming his grandchildren names like, (let’s say, for example, because it’s slipped my mind,) Celia and Walter. He seemed bemused and slightly perplexed at this return to the old ways. Here was a man I’d read a lot about over the past few years standing right before me, but it occurred to me that there was no truth about him that I knew with any certainty. Nor did he know anything about me. The video piece I’d done the night before for the General Convention Nightly News about the newest split in the Episcopal Church – those who like jello dishes at potluck suppers and those who don’t – didn’t tell a fraction of the truth about my history or my life or my faith or what is dear to me. It merely suggested that one opinion I hold is that we Episcopalians take ourselves way too seriously.
I know the truth about you. When you come face-to-face with someone, when you look him in the eye, it is impossible to say with any certainty “I know you.” When we examine our burgeoning on-line culture of chatter with its easy, facile insta-response, we kid ourselves by assuming we can know anyone simply by what he or she writes on a given day in a given mood.
The saddest and most horrific example of this unknowability was made manifest on the Virginia Tech campus this week. Mental illness and a deep detachment may have made knowing the truth about Cho Seung-Hui impossible, but those who knew him as “the question mark kid” didn’t know him at all. And in my deepest heart, though I so wish it were different, I suspect I would have looked over him as well. When people are unappealing or difficult or somehow different, isn’t brushing past them the easiest way?
There is so much to know in this remarkable age. As I sit at my desk each day, my head reels at all the pieces I don’t have time to read thoroughly. Things I want to know as well as topics and ideas that pique the edges of my interest. How quickly my opinions are formed by the fleeting glance of this person’s response on this particular blog. How much I assume I know about people I know virtually nothing about.
As Christians this business of being deeply known and loved by God is at the core of our faith. Being completely known and loved anyway is what allows us to reach to those who may not be loveable or agreeable or fathomable in any way. The truth, Jesus assures us, will set us free. In the swirl of that kind of knowing and love we are free to be vulnerable, free to ask questions, free to place our lives in the hands of people we don’t entirely know…and will never fully know. That kind of vulnerability and self-revelation is hard enough to do with those we draw deeply into our daily lives. How much harder to know and be known by the people at our margins.
“I know the truth about you,” my husband says to me this morning as he knots his tie at the foot of our bed. “You are a slug.” It’s true. It’s school vacation week. I’ll get to work when I get to work. But because he has nailed me, I resent him. From the middle of the bed I grab the big body pillow he sleeps with to keep his shoulder from becoming stiff – the pillow he’s named Evangeline after the actress who plays Kate on the TV show Lost – and chuck her onto the floor.
“Ha,” I say.
He looks aghast, but recovers quickly. “These are the things we’ve come to expect. These are the sorts of things.”