If you’re within a dozen yards of me at some point in your life, you will probably be turned into a social experiment.
I am basically a mad scientist, but without the science.
This past week, I’ve helped manage a line of Amish fiction fans, often more than 100 people strong, at fourteen different events. In between handing out newsletter sign-ups, holding purses, and taking pictures of people with cameras and phones, I’ve noticed something very interesting.
Random strangers have muscled or tiptoed their way past small talk about the weather and books to share about their lives to me, the person standing at the front of the line holding the camera.
Sometimes personal stories or struggles. Sometimes lengthy explanations of what a good book helps them escape from. Occasionally seemingly unrelated facts like what they think of God’s Not Dead 2 or that their husband hates scraping ice off the windshield.
I noticed, too, that my default when I’m not sure what else to say is to add something about my life that relates. The books I’ve enjoyed, my experience with the Amish, my carefully-worded cautions about the God’s Not Dead franchise.
And in all but a few cases, the people have looked at me kind of askew, as if I’d just interrupted them, and continued right on with their story. It doesn’t annoy me, not anymore, because I realized something:
We all want to be known. It’s one of the deepest, scariest parts of being human.
We are surrounded, every day, by people who are pushing through a constant stream of chatter and buzz, told (implicitly) by the church to keep serving and smiling, all the while struggling with the same sins and suffering as everyone else…but still feeling incredibly alone.
They send out signal flares every now and then: needy Facebook posts, one-sided conversations, half-finished answers, tears, “fine” in a flat tone.
Do we see those cries for help? Do we care?
The problem is, everyone’s talking, but hardly anyone’s listening. We want to be known all the time. Rarely do we want to know others. It’s easy to take (or just ache for connection if you’re the rugged independent type). It’s harder to give, to take risks, to ask questions and remember answers and follow up and love people even when they hurt us or never seem to show interest in return.
It’s kind of like the wave of viral articles I’ve seen recently: “How to Love an Extroverted Introvert” or “The Mind of an Independent Woman Explained Perfectly in Memes” or “10 Ways a Tall, Colorblind Bookworm who Likes Mexican Food is Different from Everyone Else.”
On all of these articles, when you click to the Facebook comments, you see things like “This describes me perfectly!” or “This. Just everything about this.” And the commenter will almost always tag someone else.
Do you see that? The significance of those clickable blue tagged names bringing someone else into a usually-flattering click-bait article?
They say, “Please understand me.” They say, “I’m not the only one like this, am I?” They say, “I feel so lonely sometimes, but I want to be known.”
Here’s the thing: I have heard those cries from others. I have known for a long time that I can be the one to listen and love and understand.
But it still irritates me, sometimes, when I have to give instead of take, because I am an incredibly selfish human being. I want to talk about me, because my life is interesting and my stories are funny, and if I talk enough, maybe you will want to be my friend despite my insecurities and awkwardness and arrogance. Maybe I won’t feel so alone.
Obviously, it’s dangerous to make your whole mission in life giving to others without ever seeking out mutual friendships where you can know and be known, where there’s a balance of give-and-take that’s so hard to find. (I’ve often gone too far in this direction.)
But I think all of us can try to understand one person every day. Just one. Ask a question. Meet someone new. Make a little difficult small talk and see where it goes—and if it doesn’t go anywhere, don’t stress out about it. Follow up a story not with one of your own, but with a prompt for the other person to keep going. Pray for someone—out loud, right there with them. Write a letter or a Facebook message.
As Christians, especially, I think this is one way we can mirror the humility of Christ. It’s a practical, tangible way to love others, and I’d love it if the church was marked not by a barrage of talk-radio, social-media chatter that crafts image and declares opinions and loudly wants to be known, but by the quiet pauses, the simple questions, and the sacrifice of knowing others.
That’s how I want to be known.