Day 1: On being known

Or, rethinking sharing as narcissism

The Johnston-Felton-Hay House, a National Historic Landmark in Macon, Georgia

Last November, my friends Chris and Carey celebrated their wedding at the historic Hay House, just across the street from my home. It was a fabulous party, and one that was only made possible a few months earlier when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States. I think it was a little sweeter for that realization.

The party was filled with good friends as well as a who’s who of Macon and a few celebrities. It was topped off with a moving rendition of R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” by Mike Mills, Robert McDuffie and students from the McDuffie Center for Strings.

My shaky iPhone video of Mills, McDuffie, et al performing “Nightswimming”

What’s really stuck with me, however, is a conversation I had with a colleague — let’s call him Bill — who’d had enough drink to make him even more reflective and uninhibited than usual.

A small group of us were standing near the buffet table, while others were dancing in the ballroom. As the group splintered, Bill and I were left standing together, continuing our small talk.

Then Bill looked at me and said, “You know, you’re really hard to get to know. And I’d really like to get to know you.”

Bill wasn’t someone I saw often. We work in the same college but in different departments. We see each other at faculty meetings and occasionally walking across campus. Macon being a relatively small city, and both of us being downtown residents, we occasionally bump into each other socially.

But there haven’t been all that many occasions for us to get to know each other, so his statement really stopped me short. I had no idea he had given me a second thought, and I certainly didn’t know how to respond other than an honest, “Yeah, I know.”

As the conversation continued and we moved outside to sit on the front steps of the Hay House and talk for the better part of an hour, it became clear that my impenetrability was the subject of conversations he’d had with others. Presumably brief conversations, but conversations nonetheless. That also surprised me.

The fact that I was the subject of conversations wasn’t a complete surprise. I’d moved here nearly four years earlier to start a relatively high-profile center and from a magazine I’d cofounded that had some true fans. And, of course, my monkey mind can get caught up in all sorts of imagined conversations about all sorts of shortcomings.

What hadn’t really occurred to me, and something I’ve repeatedly thought of since this conversation, is that my interpersonal remoteness affected others in a very direct way. I knew — or suspected, anyway — that I was sometimes misconstrued as aloof and even arrogant at times. I hated that. I’m quiet and introspective. I like to observe. I’m probably too self-conscious, and I hold back to feel safe and, ironically, avoid the judgement of others. But I love people, and I’m pretty egalitarian. So those misperceptions have always bothered me.

Nonetheless, I’ve always seen that as my problem. Some people misconstrue who I am (Isn’t that true of everyone in some way?); I lose out. I don’t see myself as good at small talk; I miss out.

I never stopped to consider that I was depriving others of something they might want or need. I never considered that opening up and being vulnerable might benefit others, that such sharing was a giving gesture.

When I’m fully present — and I think I am usually mostly present, one-on-one — I’m a pretty good listener. To the extent that I thought about it, I suppose I saw listening as act of giving. I let others open up; I let them be known.

If I’d given it some more thought, I would have realized that their opening up was also a giving gesture on their part. They were letting themselves be known, and helping me (as listener) to feel an improved bond and to learn and be enriched by their sharing. Listening isn’t just an act of service; it’s also self-serving, in a good way.

The flip side of that equation is what Bill was helping me realize. By withholding myself, I was depriving others of the opportunity to listen and therefore benefit in those ways. Not because I am special. Because we’re all similar in ways that need affirming. We need to know we’re not alone. And because we’re all unique in ways that enrich. We all have stories that need to be heard (not just for our benefit as sharer, but for the listeners’).

Letting yourself be known, in some real and meaningful way, is not only a deep need; it’s also a profound gift.

I wish I could say that Bill and I became close friends afterwards and the conversation occasioned a noticeable change more generally. I’ve only bumped into Bill a few times, and honestly, I’ve just felt too busy to really address the broader implications (i.e., it hasn’t been a priority).

However, I have returned mentally to that conversation more than a few times.

It’s slowly changed my view of social media. I never fully bought into the view of Twitter and Facebook as mechanisms for a supremely shallow narcissism. But I did view them largely as marketing and self-promotion vehicles. I was definitely conscious of the self I was projecting when I’d post.

Lately, I’ve tried to be more open on social media and less concerned with those projections. I’ve tried to share honest feelings and stories rather than just simple facts and opinions. Whether I’m expressing despair over current events or sharing a snippet of a conversation with my daughter, Rose, I’m starting to view posts as a way of letting people in, of actually sharing. I’m becoming more interested in storytelling (in microcosm) and connection than proclamation and projection.

And that’s part of what I’m hoping to do with this writing. I haven’t written regularly in a while. But my goal for August is to publish every day. I’ve set out to write regularly that before, and even proclaimed that intention, but that was definitely more about proclamation, projection and marketing. This time, it’s more about opening up and letting others in. The posts won’t always be deeply personal or particularly weighty. But, whether deep or shallow, I hope they are honest.

Maybe next, I’ll do more of this face-to-face. But that’s going to take some slowing down, and that’s a whole other process to wrestle with.

“Bright as Yellow”
Written by Karen Peris

And you live your life with your arms stretched out.
Eye to eye when speaking.
Enter rooms with great joy shouts,
happy to be meeting.

And bright,
bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.

And I do not want to be a rose.
I do not wish to be pale pink,
but flower scarlet, flower gold.
And have no thorns to distance me,

but be bright,
bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.

Even if I’m shouting, even if I’m shouting here inside.
Even if I’m shouting, do you see that I’m wanting,
that I want to be so

bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.