What can we actually know about someone? What, exactly, does it even mean to know someone? Is it possible it’s as simple as a name to a face?
Imagine an ordinary day. As always, you are consumed by the current of our own life — committed to it, if you are one of the lucky few who keeps pace with time in an equally definitive and deliberate manner. Either way, you find yourself making your way through the day, accompanied by the usual cohort of stresses, ideas, anticipations, plans, and daydreams. Suddenly, though, one face among many which you do not recognize becomes familiar. Can you believe it? It’s such-and-such from whatchamacallit! What a funny coincidence. You see the face — you think the name — you stop and say hello (or you awkwardly become enthralled in a nonexistent text to avoid eye contact) — but there is connection, recognition. Perhaps this constitutes knowing someone.
Or maybe, knowing someone is an endeavor to be measured by a matter of degrees — varying milestones on the scale determined by meeting corresponding quotas and quality of information. Think: Frank is a pescatarian, he plays in his company’s beach volleyball league in the summer, he majored in Political Science but works at an accounting firm now, he was born in ’86, has three older brothers and one younger sister, speaks a little bit of Portuguese, and could eat Cheerios on a daily basis and never tire of them. By most definitions, it would be fair to say you know Frank. Whether or not you know him better than any other of your friends, acquaintances, relatives, or old flames is a matter of comparison far too subjective to be conclusive.
By that definition, you can come to know someone by asking them a series of questions and committing their answers to memory until you know them like you know your parents’ home phone number — with or without pneumonic device, it’s in your brain. But there is something not quite right about knowing someone in that sense, in a manner that mirrors studying or memorizing; like a puzzle piece that looks like it should absolutely be the one but won’t quite mold to the edges of its neighbors, it’s slightly off.
To me, this feeling resonates from what I acknowledge as a probably romanticized notion of what it means to really know someone. I think knowing someone is so much more than having a respectable slew of facts about them — even if the list includes the somewhat obscure or uncommon — and surely more meaningful and more deeply rooted than the one dimensional aspect of recognizing someone. That simply removes them from the category of stranger.
Knowing someone, in its best, most soul-quenching sense, is reciprocal and nuanced and earned in ways that the exchanging of facts can never be. Facts are still acquired, but there is a wider, more eclectic array, and they are gained in a much more satisfying way — a way that intermixes with the thoughts you’ve possessed for years — they become unquestionable, unforgettable.
Knowing someone is a cumulation of shared experiences, of stumbling upon mannerisms and quirks. It lends itself to an organic ability to anticipate their reaction to things — to know when and how their anger will thaw, what sparks their passion and what that passion looks like, what constitutes an expression of their love. It’s recognizing something as monumental that would appear inconsequential to the untrained — or shall I say, unknowing — eye.
It’s knowing when they’re awkward, and feeling a bubbling laughter at the juxtaposition of their awkward state with their typical existential ease. It’s knowing when they’re in their element, and feeling a sense of pride at how they shine.
It’s being willing to be disappointed by them because they are worthy of your expectations. It’s seeing their flaws — the surface ones, the silly ones, the painful ones, the permanent ones — and respecting, loving, challenging, and accepting them, respectively.
It’s allowing the vulnerability to have your own flaws on display — to expose them for scrutiny, only to find that they are respected, loved, challenged, and accepted. It’s coming to see yourself through the eyes of someone whose opinions and thoughts you cherish and respect, and in so doing, learning to further cherish and respect yourself.
It’s the simplicity in their presence and its ability to transform monotonous into memorable, the mundane into an adventure.
It’s knowing what makes them irreplaceable, what makes them weird beyond belief, what makes them insightful. It’s knowing which experiences have helped mold them into who they are — which have smoothed their rough edges, which have left them with toughened skin. It’s being as willing to share your secrets with them as you are committed to protecting theirs. It’s knowing that at their worst, their best is still visible; that at their best, their worst is insignificant.
It’s still knowing useless, nonsensical things about them, and finding relevance in these facts with surprising ease. It’s knowing that they like eating sun-dried tomatoes and regular tomatoes together. It’s knowing that they’re really not into period films. It’s knowing that they had their name changed years into their life, and knowing what the old name was. It’s calling them that name every once in a while when they least expect it. It’s knowing that they will never stop wanting to chase a butterfly when they see it. It’s knowing their favorite food. It’s knowing what they’re allergic to. It’s knowing what topic shuts them down, which gets them going. It’s knowing how to hit them with the hardest “would you rather” question, and it’s the smug satisfaction in that victory, as they can’t help but acknowledge that wow, you really know them.
It’s being comfortable in silence with them, because it is only quiet, not a void in need of fillers — because keeping their company is as natural in silence as it is in engaged conversation as it is in laughter. It’s knowing when their silence is serene, and when their silence makes a statement. It’s knowing their vices, their yearnings, their insecurities.
Knowing someone, in all these senses, is not a one-way street. It’s a complex, interconnected, beautifully alive and dynamic experience. It meets your own existence at its core, shaping it and awakening it, and becoming a part of your own knowledge of yourself. It is a process that integrates itself into the instinctual patterns of your very being; it is a pulsing presence without ever being an imposition.
As I attempted to articulate my idea of the real meaning of knowing someone, it unraveled so organically that I discovered my own definition of what it means to know someone as I wrote it. To me, knowing someone is loving them, and it is the merging of the two experiences until they become inseparable. Or, at the very least, that’s the best way I can think of to know someone.