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Can You Ever Really Know Someone?

By Sherry Bronson November 11, 2021 Lifestyle

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 40 years other factors influenced who we’ve become.

Considering Different Lenses and Attitude Filters

This month I’m taking an online course on writing. 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;
  • Your birth order;
  • Who raised you;
  • What happened to you along the way;
  • What work you do (did);
  • Where you live(d);
  • What prejudices you were subjected to, knowingly or unknowingly;
  • What fears you have (had);
  • What was your religious training;
  • Where you were educated and by whom;
  • Who were your friends;
  • Who were you enemies;
  • Who encouraged you and how;
  • Who discouraged you and how;
  • Who you admire(d);
  • What TV programming, movies, music, books… you enjoyed… 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 in my present community had none of those advantages. Perhaps this kind of awareness of difference is easier living in a foreign country. The inequalities 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.

The Danger of Sameness

Another danger inherent to 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.

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The Author

Sherry Bronson is a writer and traveler. After downsizing, she spent ten thrilling years in Bali, then a year exploring Mexico. Now, she's in northern Minnesota rehabbing a derelict hunting cabin on the family farm. On her blog, Sherry encourages readers to fearlessly and fully live their own authentic lives.

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