Last month I learned something new about myself.
Having wrestled with mental health issues for 40-odd years, I’m always fine-tuning the way I manage them. During a particularly low time last month, I happened to spend a delightful weekend at a fun event with friends. Then I took Monday afternoon off to go skiing. Lo and behold, I felt better.
I am now referring to this as “turning on the cut-loose full blast.” (Perhaps “opening a can o’ cut-loose” sounds better. Open to suggestions here.)
What baffles me about this is my age. It’s not like I’m 23 and learning all kinds of things about myself. I’m middle-aged by anyone’s definition. And I’ve spent decades digging around in my psyche.
Bottom line, I know myself well—and I don’t.
This tells me that our self-images are always incomplete, constantly in process (to a greater or lesser extent). Sometimes we change and our self-images are slow to catch up. Sometimes our self-images are inaccurate from the get-go. Whatever the case, there’s value in remaining open to “I don’t know,” even when the topic is our very own selves.
This goes double for other people. We build images of others almost without thinking. If someone tells me x about you, that can influence my thinking. While reading something you wrote, I pick up messages that may—or may not—reflect who you essentially are.
Then I meet you, and the fun begins. Quite naturally, I filter what you say through my image of you. But what if my image is inaccurate? That means I’m not really hearing what you say. And we can’t have a serious dialogue if we can’t hear each other.
I’ve written about the value of laying aside one’s preconceptions to come to dialogue “empty”: free of filters and assumptions and ready to listen with full attention. This, I think, applies to our self-images and our other-images too. By admitting I don’t know you inside and out, I free myself to listen deeply. By admitting I don’t know myself inside and out, I make room for your words to bring parts of myself—even unknown parts—to the surface.
My father-in-law quotes T. S. Eliot as writing, “Each time we meet, we are strangers.” By holding that thought in our dialogue, we allow ourselves to hear each other afresh.