Can You Ever Really Know Someone?
My sister and I exchange emails at least once a week. Sometimes I’m shocked when I read her impressions of something I’ve said. It’s eye-opening and gives me a different lens through which to see myself.
Brought up in a small town in northern Minnesota, we were raised by parents who had a solid marriage. We went to the same Lutheran Church, the same grade school, and graduated from the same high school. I’m the oldest. She’s the middle. Born two years after me, she was close in age to the youngest, our brother.
After graduation our paths diverged, like the Robert Frost poem I love, and in the ensuing forty years other factors influenced who we’ve become.
Considering Different Lenses and Attitude Filters
This month I’m taking an online course, Storied Women, through the University of Iowa. Much of the writing I’ve submitted for the assignments comes from memories of childhood. My sister reads everything I write.
In a recent email exchange she commented, “I love hearing you tell the stories the way you see them—so different from the way I see them. I guess we all see things through our own attitude filter. It’s liberating to consider a different view!”
And then she asked, “Where do these attitude filters come from?”
The Source of Attitude Filters
The question threw me, not because I had no answer, but because this is something I think about all the time. I had assumed, quite obviously and incorrectly, that everyone does. With my fingers flying I hammered out a list and wrote the following response:
Attitude filters, filters of any kind, come from many sources:
Where you were born;
What was your birth order;
Who raised you;
What happened to you along the way;
What work did/do you do;
Where did/do you live;
What prejudices were you subjected to, knowingly or unknowingly;
What was your religious training;
Where were you educated and by whom;
Who were your friends;
Who were you enemies;
Who encouraged you and how;
Who discouraged you and how;
Who did/do you admire;
What TV programming;
What books… and the list goes on…
I think it’s important to realize that all these things impact our core belief system – that mysterious conglomerate of truths that subconsciously instructs our every decision – which may not be “truth” at all.
Differences in Awareness
Then my sister surprised me a second time. She asked if I’d found the list somewhere, or compiled it from years of study.
This isn’t some stranger, mind you. This is a person I lived with growing up and have exchanged thoughts, writings, and ideas with for 60 plus years! This is a person I should know well; someone I expect to also know me. The fact that my thought process was so foreign to her made me wonder how odd I really am!
The items I listed are the measuring sticks by which I daily monitor my responses to life, people and the events around me. Uppermost in my mind is that I was born white in the richest, most powerful country in the world. I am well-educated, well-traveled and have enjoyed privileges that are unequaled anywhere.
The people here that I know and love had none of those advantages. Perhaps this kind of awareness of difference is easier living in a foreign country. The inequities are ever-present, and to ignore them one runs the risk of causing offense and deepening misconceptions.
It is, however, equally as important to be cognizant of our own attitude filters when we’re in familiar surroundings rubbing up against people more like ourselves. In that situation there’s a tendency to assume we share commonalities and that we’re very much alike. Those assumptions may be far from the truth.
Nobody has identical sets of inputs (see, the list). Therefore, nobody will ever think about things exactly like anyone else, even close siblings. A current example of this is the utter shock at the outcome of a certain presidential election.
The Danger of Sameness
Another danger inherent in living among people mostly like ourselves is that the “others” are out of sight. They don’t challenge us. They keep to their own communities where they also feel less challenged to understand differences. Then when something happens there’s no basis for agreement. It’s us against them, them against us.
Here in Bali, I’m a minority. My skin color, my language, my heritage, my culture, my beliefs, the way I dress, my manners, and the very way I think are at odds with the majority in this country. I could choose to live in a cloistered ex-pat community where I’m sheltered among my own kind. Many do. But it would rob me of one of the greatest joys of my life.
That joy is the privilege of living intertwined with the Balinese people, listening, asking questions, being amazed at our similarities and blown away by our differences, striving to understand, which I never fully can because of that list.
If you have a sibling or friend you know well, or think you do, talk with them about this attitude filter list and tell us what you discover. Do you think you can ever really know someone? Or, can you know only those things about them that mirror your own experience? Please share in the conversation.