The Need to be Known

The need to be known goes both ways. We need to know those around us, and we need them to know us. This need is social and emotional, it’s also extremely practical. Let me start with an example of the latter.

The other day, as I was driving to the grocery store, I saw a woman with an odd physical gait walking up the driveway to the store. I kept one eye on her as I entered the parking area, because there isn’t a sidewalk there (although there should be). The way she was walking and moving her body added to my uncertainty about her safety – and mine. The grocery store is in an area frequented by the homeless, many of whom are drug addicts. I have seen other people with odd gaits – I need to know, is this person likely to run in front of my car? I need that information to take appropriate action, action that I must take and action that cannot (now that I’m in the flow of traffic) be avoided. All was well, and odd gait or not, she made very good time, because by the time I was parked and out of my car, she was at the front of the store. When I caught up with her, she was being enthusiastically greeted by one of the clerks – her odd physical gait was not because of drugs, it was some form of physical disability.

My interest in her changed in an instant – from an evaluation of my personal safety, now I was much more interested in keeping an eye out to make sure that she was safe and help her if it was needed. The knowledge – even that tiny mote – changed my interaction with her. It’s none of my business how she is disabled, it is my business to see her and take her needs into consideration.

When we cry out, “if you only knew”, aren’t we asking for the same thing? We want people to know our carrying capacity and not overload us. We want people to ask us to help when we have extra to share. We want to do the things we’re best at, and we want someone to offer us help (without being asked) when we’re having a hard season.

We want you to know our talents, so that we can be asked to display them. We want you to know our fears, so that you can help us avoid them. Most folks are decent, and they’d shoot fireworks well away from the gentleman with PTSD… if they knew. Most folks wouldn’t ask the lady with four cats (me) to iron up the uniforms for the team who has the kid with the pet allergy. Most folks won’t complain about the kid screaming when they know he’s nonverbal and autistic – and well cared for. The folks that aren’t so decent… wouldn’t you like to know who they are?

We insist, sometimes, that our uniqueness should be universally catered to – but that becomes too much in big ponds… there are too many other fish, with too many other needs. Let there be a space for fireworks, and a time – and keep to that space and time and let those who can enjoy, enjoy. I might be a bang-up ironer, but maybe I should carry the boxes in from the buses after the big game instead? This is what knowing and being known provides.

So why do we not embrace this? A variety of reasons. Anonymity buys you privacy. Who hasn’t had some aunt or aunt’s best friend rummage through one’s childhood mistakes and ask about them in a public setting? Loudly. Or not quite as embarrassing but equally annoying, asking after that discarded dream, that ex, that pregnancy that ended in miscarriage… if you move away from auntie’s best friend, you never have to cringe in quite that way ever again. Anonymity buys you freedom – freedom from expectations good and bad. Anonymity buys you peace – if no one knows you have a talent, no one will ask you to use it when you’d rather be sleeping in. Anonymity buys you new beginnings, as you walk away from your past. Anonymity allows you to walk away from personal dislikes or grudges – as well as generational ones.

This is one of the reasons that I say that a new society requires new ethics. Ethics informed by the past but not copied from it. We could make an ethic against gossip . We could make an ethic about thinking the best of folks. We could make an ethic of encouraging people to grow and change – and expecting that. We will probably never get rid of tactless people, because humans – but we could, perhaps have an ethic about humoring silliness when it comes without malice. We must have an ethic of forgiveness paired with a commitment to justice, or we will never be free of “but…”

Community has its costs, but it has far more benefits. It would be wise of us to look carefully at how to minimize the former while reacquiring the latter. We don’t want to go back – we want to go forward. Let us indeed learn the lessons of history that we do not repeat them.

Let us know, and be known.

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