Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Charles Featherstone: “On Knowing, And Being Known“.
One of the frequently recurring themes in Featherstone’s writing is the desire for belonging and connection with others on a deep level and how modern, rationalistic society mitigates against this. At one point, back in medieval times, it was possible for a person to go by many different names in different stages of life (this was the norm in many pre-modern societies). The people whom you lived and interacted with in your family and in your community knew you well enough that it did not matter what name you went by. Nowadays, however, things are different. Everyone has a fixed name tied to a fixed and proper surname tied to a unique identification number tied to a whole host of other documents and other things which purport to describe and explain, in exact and excruciating detail, who we are.
One of the greatest lies of modernity is that this way of knowing and describing who we are is all that matters. That the modern State, with its control of all the documents which purport to confer identity upon us and the processes by which said documents are issued, is ultimately the end-all, be-all of our identity, of who we are and who we can claim to be. Yet this way of knowing is woefully incomplete (and I think we all know this) because it fails to take into account the knowledge of character and personality. It is knowledge disembodied, cut off from the relationships of family, church, and community which form us and define us–the people closest to us who know all our character traits, personality quirks, likes and dislikes, hopes, dreams and deepest desires. The people who see us know us and love us as we really are.
Featherstone aches for this sense of belonging, of being part of a community where he knows and is known by others on a very deep level. As an autistic individual I can relate to this, as my ability to form attachments, to experience belonging and connection with others is impaired. Yet I deeply desire these things; I am after all a human being and that is part of being human. The end result is that I spend my days with a deep-seated and pervasive longing for something which can probably never be mine for as long as I live.
Now I am part of a church community where I know I belong and I have many friends who know me well and love and accept me, and I know this. Yet it has taken a long time to get to this point. And though I know all this in my head, it is very difficult for me to feel it in my heart. Why? Because I am different. In each of the social environments of which I am a part (church, work, small group, Thursday night running group, etc.), there is some part of me which others do not share. Many of my running friends do not share my evangelical commitments and many of my church friends do not share my interest in running. Even among my evangelical friends, there are few who share my spiritual journey or understanding of certain important political/theological issues. This is hard for me because these things set me apart from others when what I crave is to be in closer communion with others.
Also, in each of the social environments of which I am a part, it seems as if the others have a shared life together–shared experiences, shared memories, etc.–of which I am not a part. I hear them talk about it in their conversations and inwardly I fill with regret and envy because I want so badly to be part of that shared life, to have a part in all those shared stories and shared memories.
All of this is part of the deep-seated and pervasive longing which I feel for something which, as noted above, can probably never be mine. To be perfectly clear, this is not anyone’s fault. If you are reading this and you are my friend, please do not blame yourself. Know that this is simply an unresolved tension in my own life, one which will probably remain unresolved for as long as I live. As noted in my recent posts on spiritual dissatisfaction and unresolved tension, unresolved tension is something which we evangelicals really do not know what to do with. Yet it is important to learn to live with unresolved tension because it forces us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and it forces us to learn to trust.
I will conclude with this:
I want to be more than who and what I say I am. To have something bigger than a self to point to. To know that, in love, others have considered me, and seen something in me, that I could not see without them. And help me become something I could not be — without them.
That I am part of a people who are part of me. Who shape me and are shaped by me. This is what I mean by knowing.