on being known

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Every shade and stripe of every possible variety of connection is about wanting, above all else, to be known; for someone else to see as much of you as possible. Shared experience is important. It’s not everything, but it’s something, because nobody wants to be explaining at forty to a hostile audience why they are the way they are, but you don’t want to punch below your weight class, either, and wind up with somebody who only loves you because they don’t know any better—because the day they do know better is the day they’ll walk out the door.

I recently read Barbara Bourland’s excellent art thriller Fake Like Me and was struck by this paragraph about our collective desire to be known, which is arguably the driving force of all creative work. It helped me realize something about myself: I’ve always identified as not wanting to be known, as fearing it deeply because I’m a self-protective, sensitive person, but that’s obviously not the complete picture. Why else would I share my writing, why would I tweet or update this blog, why would I fall in love or nurture my relationships with my friends? Of course I want to be known and to be seen.

Two nights ago I was talking to a friend about why I tweet. He said that the idea of sharing things about himself online makes him uncomfortable and he couldn’t be as public as I was, but also pointed out that he also thinks I’m not sharing all of myself online, either—you’re not taking that many risks. I think he’s right, in the sense that the real-life version of me is obviously different from the curated version of myself I present online. I’m performing—it’s impossible to not to. Being a woman, as I’ve written before, is inherently a performative thing—you’re raised to believe that the version of you that you should put forward is the perfected, palatable version. At the same time, if you’ve read my writing you do know me—the books I read, the films I like, the jokes I find funny, the things I’m ashamed of. You know more about me than anyone who’s talked to me for 45 minutes at a cocktail party could learn.

The truth is that being known can be absolutely horrible. If you haven’t read Tim Kreider’s excellent essay on this topic, I highly recommend it. He starts off by describing an email that was accidentally forwarded to him:

The context is that I had rented a herd of goats for reasons that aren’t relevant here and had sent out a mass e-mail with photographs of the goats attached to illustrate that a) I had goats, and b) it was good. Most of the responses I received expressed appropriate admiration and envy of my goats, but the message in question was intended not as a response to me but as an aside to some of the recipient’s co-workers, sighing over the kinds of expenditures on which I was frittering away my uncomfortable income. The word “oof” was used.

He goes on to explain why the email was jarring: “What was surprisingly wounding wasn’t that the e-mail was insulting but simply that it was unsympathetic. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side.”

We like to believe that everyone views us the way we view ourselves—from the most sympathetic angle. We believe that we have good reasons for doing what we do, that our intentions are mostly honorable even if our actions are not. We want everyone to agree. Of course, people are sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes they’re nicer to you than you are to yourself, but often they’re really fucking mean. We all have friends who are fun to discuss—friends who make crazy life choices, who date inappropriate people, who pursue ill-advised business schemes. We love them, but we also love to talk about them with other friends, and we don’t think that’s necessarily such a contradiction. But none of us like to imagine ourselves being discussed in the same way. We don’t give other people the leeway that we give ourselves—we don’t believe they could criticize us and still love us.

When you share things about yourself willingly—posting pictures of yourself online, writing a blog—you’re making criticism inevitable. You’re releasing information into the wild and people can respond to it however they want. They can approach it with the right context, or absolutely no context. You’re allowing yourself to be seen, to be known, and in return you might be seen in ways you realllly don’t want yourself to be seen.

This is what I love about the Internet and what I hate most about it. It’s taken some time for me understand that it’s natural to be ambivalent about exposure: that you’re opening yourself to both good feedback and bad feedback, and you can’t have one without the other. If you’re trying to curate and control everything, you’re not really taking any risks in life or in art: you’ll never feel that good about being seen because what’s being seen isn’t you.

From Kreider’s essay:

Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.

In my opinion, this is an allegory for putting yourself out there: are you willing to descend the underground staircase and hear the ugly, unfair judgments, in order to reach the wonderful and kind compliments? Is the exposure worth the reward?

For me, it’s been worth it: finding people whom I’ve become close friends with, who really and truly understand me, is worth the embarrassment of sharing. It doesn’t feel good to be vulnerable but it often feels necessary.

Of course, even if you don’t want to be online at all—even if you want to share as little of yourself as possible—you can’t escape the mortification of being known. It’s only by risking something important that we can produce good work and form meaningful relationships. The possibility of judgment is the price we pay for real love.

I used to find it hard to relax in relationships because I hated the idea of being seen in all my hideous imperfection, my anxiety and neediness. I think one of the most helpful things I’ve realized over time is that I don’t need to be perfect to be loved. That what I actually need is to allow myself to be known, to let someone see as much of me as possible. That what binds two people together is seeing all the ugliness and still miraculously, improbably, choosing each other.