I love intimate self-disclosure. Tell me about your fears, obsessions, dreams, people you loathe, people you love, places you pine after, your most searing failures and most surprising joys, and I will be there. If you’re curious about me, I’m happy to fill your mind with all kinds of tidbits, from the politely interesting to the jaw-dropping and bizarre… depending on your own level and type of curiosity.
Often, I’m disappointed when parties or gatherings have a theme that doesn’t involve interpersonal sharing. Why bother organizing games or other canned activities when people could just sit around and tell fabulously personal stories about themselves? When I’m with people, I want to understand them better—and, if they’re interested, help them understand me. I like to shave off layers and layers of hiddenness until I crack open some kind of core and feel bonded in a new way. I like to know people. But would I want to know everything about them? And would I want them to know everything about me?
Several summers ago, I spent at week at Virginia’s Monroe Institute, in a program meant to teach participants how to leave their bodies (a fabulous notion since a self that can leave the body implies a spiritual soul that can survive the body’s death). One of our instructors, a youngish, chino-clad guy I’ll call Louis, claimed he had access to other people’s inner worlds: their thoughts and emotions. Louis told us he usually turned that ability off because it was over-stimulating and interfered with his ability to enjoy daily life. But that pipeline into other people’s minds and hearts was there when he wanted it.
I felt a chill as he described it all. Could he read my own mind, know what I was thinking and feeling? The possibility made me cringe. I asked myself why. I’m always sharing my thoughts and feelings, both in writing and in conversation, with anyone who will listen. Why should I be upset if someone has a clear path to it all, with no effort on my part? I often tend towards laziness: here my key goal of opening up would happen even if I was too lazy to utter a word.
But the truth is… much as I seem super-honest and open, that goes only so far. My parents often advise me to keep some of my thoughts to myself, but they can’t imagine how much actually remains within my own skull. I’d be humiliated if all that came to the surface, if I somehow carried around a visible thought bubble that invited everyone into my unadulterated inner universe.
When I talk or write, I can shape things just so, give them just the slant I want to project. Yes, I seem open, but even that is part of my conscious self-presentation. I appear as if I’m letting everyone in on the whole wild and weird scoop, but I secretly hold so much back, and kind of twist much of the stuff I do share to fit my comfort zone and desired public face. Often, it’s seamless and just above the threshold of consciousness: a form of acting that feels like it’s real-life. And it is real life, because real life, for me—yes, even for me—is not a free-flowing public shower of everything that passes through my mind and every action I might carry out if no one was watching.
My hidden thoughts can be insulting to other people (including those I like or even love), self-incriminating (displaying levels of traits like anger and selfishness that I would not want to share with a soul), or just plain bizarre in ways that I know would disturb other people. I wouldn’t want a guy like Louis to sit there delving into my mortifying mind.
But would I want a line into other people’s minds? What if I could keep my own thoughts walled off until and unless I wanted to share, but could extend a mental telescope into any other souls that interested me, reading their ideas and emotions? Part of me thinks it would be a great and wondrous gift, allowing for self-preservation and swiftly accurate character judgment, not to mention fascinating insights. I often complain that people don’t talk enough, that they’d rather focus on some non-personal activity like chess, golf, or movie-watching than share their souls. Given that, how could I possibly give up full understanding of any personality that intrigues me?
Problem is, the insights could be bone-chilling. Yes, I want to know if a supposed friend secretly despises me so I can protect myself and end the relationship. But do I want to know if a good and loyal friend finds me disgusting in some way that I can do nothing about? If I meet a former student, do I want to know that she thinks I look older than she remembers? Would I want access to a family member’s violent fantasies if it’s all in the realm of imagination and would never influence overt behavior?
I might say yes, because how could I turn down such a gift… but would said gift be like downing pounds of exquisite chocolate in one sitting: a theoretically glorious thing gone sour and sickening? My gut response is… probably. Complete access to each other’s minds would likely lead to hatred and fear on all sides.
So where does that leave me and my yearning to know people as well as I possibly can? That desire seems to have an outer limit, beyond which lie pain and trauma. And, indeed, the unfiltered pain and trauma of other souls may be too much for us to handle. Dealing with ourselves is hard enough.
Recently, I received much more information than I cared to know about an acquaintance’s impressions of me. I’d love to give the details, but I think it’s safer to keep this confidential. In a nutshell, he shared that he detests me and finds my whole spiritual quest enraging.
The other people involved immediately took my side and expressed horror, but asked for compassion after he’d left, explaining that there’s always more to behavior than we can see on the surface. And here’s the interesting (and dismaying) thing: I felt no compassion whatsoever. I’d removed him from the realm of “all the fascinating humans I’d love to understand in-depth.” He hated me, and I knew it, and that sucked all the wonder out of trying to understand or relate to him.
Most of us have much better self-control than he does: we don’t lash out and tell people we barely know how much we despise them. In other words, most of our minds are a bit closed off from other people. And I have to admit that this has powerful perks. Oddly enough, I am more curious about people I don’t know as well. When I have less, I want more, but when I have more, I sometimes run away. But does that stem partly from my own human limitations?
Me being me, I can’t resist adding a spiritual slant here. Many afterlife notions have some notion of judgment: God or some other deeply knowing force examining our lives and inner depths and deeming us worthy or not… or somewhere in between. I’m pleased to say that Orthodox Judaism (the only major brand of Judaism that seems explicitly concerned with afterlife questions as far as I can tell) does not seem to embrace black-and-white notions of heaven vs. hell… and in fact suggests that the soul itself judges its own life—which never leads to hell, but does lead to appropriate kinds of cleansing so the soul can ultimately enjoy a heavenly state that is powered by its own good deeds and purified from its negative ones. The process hinges on an exhaustive journey towards self-understanding, and, ultimately, yields a kind of spiritual bliss.
According to Shlomo Yaffe and Yanki Tauber, Chabad Hasidic writers who have studied the relevant texts, even the most wicked souls ultimately achieve a heavenly state. In the end, every single soul has enough goodness to warrant a beautiful reward.
Other Jewish takes on the afterlife literature exclude some souls from ultimate heavenly reward—how could Jews, of all people, agree on such a complex and contentious question?—but I love Yaffe and Tauber’s interpretation, partly because it fits with a notion I’ve long held about knowing other people. I feel like, if we knew everything about someone else’s inner world using our current ways of understanding, we’d likely fear the person, and feel horror. We’d have too much information, and we’d flee. But it’s so strange: whenever I think about this issue, a very particular notion pops into my head: that if I really, really knew someone else, in a way that I can’t achieve in my current state, I’d understand the whole story from that person’s perspective… and see the goodness, even if it’s someone I’d normally loathe.
The same basic reasoning comforts me when I consider judgment-filled afterlife notions: that a deeply knowing, mystical force would really, really know me, and thus would understand my difficulties and forgive an awful lot that would appall most people embroiled in life as we know it. Maybe it’s a supreme form of irrational self-justification, but it makes sense to me.
So here’s to knowing each other and enjoying each other… up to a point. And, maybe, to some future domain or dimension that allows us to really, really understand ourselves… and possibly others too. Meanwhile, I will continue to share in my oh-so-open yet secretly closed way… and I hope you’ll do the same.
***Image credit: “colour eye” by Ben Mortimer, March 9, 2012, on flickr.com