Some Thoughts on Knowing Others and Being Known

Douglas P. McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

After giving a retreat talk that included the story of my hitchhiking adventure to the United States back in 1979, a woman whom I have known for years said to me: "I feel I know you now". I was surprised, but it did get me thinking about a fact that is so mundane that we are no longer explicitly aware of it. We see human beings around us all the time and for the most part they are "nonentities", insignificant, just a number among a myriad of other human "nonentities". Their relative insignificance corresponds to the degree to which we lack knowledge of their personal history; they are insignificant to us because we don't know all that led up and went in to constituting the human being who stands before us in line for a coffee, or to make a withdrawal, etc. All we see is the current moment at the end of this person's long history, which is a rich narrative we know virtually nothing about.

But that doesn't stop us from constructing our own narrative on the basis of the scanty evidence before us, i.e., a piercing, a tattoo, his or her countenance, clothing, accent, tone of voice, etc. The narrative we construct may coincide with the truth of who he or she is in some respects, but our narrative is always so much thinner in comparison to the reality of this relatively unknown person before us.

Very often, after discovering something about our personal history, people will say things like "Wow, I never knew that about you; I am shocked, I never would have imagined...I see you differently now…etc." Such reactions only reveal that they had us all packaged up and figured out in their own minds. They believed the narrative which they are not even aware they weaved. In their minds, what they imagined and the inferences they made were, for all intents and purposes, "all there was to know about us". Their narrative construction was based on whatever evidence was available, and they ignored the possibility that unavailable evidence is much like the iceberg underneath the water, which is a world of evidence containing clues that would disconfirm many aspects of the narrative we constructed to explain or make sense of the person before us.

The narratives we construct are nothing more than a collection of inferences rooted in our own limited experience of others. It is natural to construct them, but it is epistemically arrogant to treat them with a high level of confidence; and yet this is precisely what people do. We should, on the contrary, make every effort to cultivate a healthy skepticism in the face of those inferences and an ongoing openness to reform. The human person is always more than what we believe him to be on the basis of narrative construction, and he is forever more than "what" we can know about him scientifically (because essence and existence are really distinct). When we stand before a human being, we are before a mystery, and we must approach that mystery with great reverence.

The fundamental need of every human being is the need to be known, that is, to be understood. That's another way of saying that our most fundamental need is to be loved; for if we are not loved, we are not understood. The need to know another and be known by others is a need to love and be loved. At the root of all moral disorder and deprivation is precisely this desire to be known, a desire which is typically disordered, which is why one is led into moral disorder.

The world we live in is one that perpetuates this interpersonal alienation, because we have become indifferent to knowing others and to the mystery that is before us in the stranger; others are a collection of nonentities, and we are aware that we are nonentities to others. The rich history behind each person, if known, would render each one far more significant and alive to us than he or she typically is; they would not be a collection of nonentities any more than the face of a brother or a long lost friend in a large crowd would be just another face. Moral depravity is fundamentally an attempt to recover what has been lost - I do not mean to suggest, however, that those who do evil are fundamentally blameless.

We have a fundamental need to establish an identity, and that need, which is good, is at the root of pride; for pride is a disordered love of one's own excellence. It is fundamentally, however, a desire for uniqueness. The fact of the matter is that we are unique, we do have an identity, and that identity is discovered - as is the nature of all things - in our origin, the principle through which we came to be. In other words, our identity is discovered in the Word through whom we came into existence (Jn 1, 1ff).

The more we know the Logos, the Word through whom all things came to be and who became flesh (Jn 1, 14), the more we discover our unique identity. Outside of that, we will desperately seek to establish an identity by distinguishing ourselves from others, separating ourselves, rejecting what others are and what they have to say and offer, all in favor of what we are and have to say and offer. The prideful do not want to know what will ultimately reveal their limitations; for they are not yet secure in the knowledge of who they are, a security that permits them rest in the knowledge of their own radical limitations. Envy spawns jealousy and slander, which is a longing for a kind of knowledge: the envious delight in knowing the faults of others; that is all they want to know, for they do not want to risk knowing anything that might suggest there is something in the other that is larger and more excellent than what they are able to discover in themselves.

Not only are pride and envy rooted in a longing to know one's unique identity, that is, a longing to be known, but so too are the sins of the flesh. "I do not know man" says Mary to the angel at the Annunciation. Sexual union is an intimate mutual act of allowing oneself to be known by another. But sexual disorder (i.e., acts of oral sex) is a disordered desire to know and be known.

The problem with excessive love of self, which sins of the flesh intensify, is that they slowly nurture indifference to others, to their sufferings, etc. In other words, sins of the flesh cause charity - which involves an exit of self - to grow cold. Anger as well is rooted in the experience of not being adequately known and loved; for it is a response to an injustice, and for a human being to live in a world indifferent to knowing him and recognizing his own unique identity, thus permitting him to discover it in others, is profoundly unjust. Avarice is a disordered love of possessing, which is the disordered desire to live and remain alive, for what lives is a knower. We want to continue to know and be known.

The desire to know and be known is fundamentally a desire for God. He knows us, for His knowledge causes us 'to be'. All men by nature desire to know, says Aristotle, and that desire is a yearning for Him, who is the First Cause, which is why the pursuit of science, which is a yearning turned backwards, is ongoing. It will remain so until we know Him. We also yearn forwards; we yearn for a happiness that is enduring, complete, and sufficient unto itself. It is the happiness of being known completely and forever, and knowing the one who knows us this way and who thus reveals to us our true identity.

Hell is the prideful rejection of what God knows and an unjust usurpation of what is proper to God; who I am (i.e., my character or moral identity) is determined by me, but I have a moral obligation to determine an identity that is in accordance with what God knows, that is, with what He intends me to be. I do that first, on a fundamental level, by obeying the basic precepts of natural law; for the natural moral law is a participation in the eternal law. Those in darkness demand the right to establish their own identity independently of Him, which is ultimately a desire to be the unutterable mystery. But only God is the unutterable mystery; for I am a mystery uttered by the Word, but the Word is uttered by the Father, and the Father is uttered by no one. Moreover, the Word is not uttered by any creature; any utterances within the Trinity are contained within the Trinity. Those who choose Hell desire to be "like that". But "that" is impossible.

Those in Hell want what is impossible to achieve, so their will is forever frustrated. They want to be in the position of God; they wish to remain mysterious, inaccessible, elevated above and in a class all their own. That the sun shines on them is a torment to them, that is, that God knows them through and through, is a torment, even though it is that knowledge that causes and perpetuates their existence. They desire to be known on their terms; they have rejected their creaturely status and do so perpetually.

The aim of the spiritual life, its purpose, is to know ourselves in the Word: to know how much we are loved. When we finally know that we are loved, when we know ourselves as we are known, that is, when we are given the new name that we alone will know (Rev 2, 17), then we will be at rest. As we progress in the spiritual life, the restless desire for our own identity decreases, for we discover it as we choose in accordance with his will.

Love, however, does not do away with all desire, only restless desire. The more we know that we are known, the more we desire to love others, to know them, to communicate to them their loveableness, to help them on towards their origin. That love too is the root of the suffering of the second beatitude: "Blessed are those who mourn". We want what others want for themselves, but often people do not understand who they are or what it is they truly want - that is our default position. Human beings are very complicated, and there are innumerable stages persons have to go through, and thus many delusions that have to be shattered, and that does not come to an end in this life for those well along the road of the spiritual life. They continue to climb, but they remain among us with patience, and pray and suffer with us, and are there when we need them, all the while rejoicing in the ever expanding ignorance brought about by their ever increasing intimacy with the Word that is their origin.