I was walking out of Walmart Friday night into the 44-degree night air — one of our coldest recently — and I saw a well-dressed and attractive woman, about 30, walking toward the door with her arms folded tightly to her body.
“You look really cold,” I said sympathetically.
“Yeah, I am,” she said and then added in a playful but seductive tone. “Did you want to keep me warm?”
Then she realized what she had just said to a stranger and she looked stricken.
“I am so sorry,” she stammered. “I don’t know why I said that. I just….”
And she suddenly took off for the inside of the store to avoid explaining herself further. It was amusing, but I could feel her embarrassment at having said something vaguely suggestive to a man who she didn’t know — and who she couldn’t possibly explain herself to.
Though I laughed inside, it left me thinking — yet again — how little we understand each other. And it made me think again that living among strangers we don’t understand is like constantly walking through a thick fog.
One night last weekend, my neighborhood was covered with a thick blanket of fog. It was an unseasonably warm night — maybe 55 or 60 degrees — as Lucy and I walked through a fog at midnight that made the streets feel enchanted. There was a strange beauty to how the light and shadows played games with the fog and made the familiar streets look quite strange — like a place I didn’t know. (I shot the picture above about a block from my house that night.)
As I walked in the unnatural stillness, I thought about how odd it was to feel so alone when there were people in the houses all around me. And that made me think about how I always feel among crowds of people.
I feel invisible to strangers in crowds, not physically but on the inside. I’m just another random person walking among them. When we’re a big crowd jostling with each other, there’s little or no communication between anybody. I find myself wanting to pick out someone — anyone who seems something like me — and making everybody else go away.
I feel like saying to this one person, “Please tell me who you are. Please tell me all about yourself. Let me understand you. And will you let me tell you who I am? Will you take the time to understand me?”
It constantly stuns me when people around me think they understand who I am. They see me in relation to the parts of themselves — or even someone else — which I might remind them of. But almost every time I realize someone thinks he or she knows me well enough to offer unsolicited advice, I quickly realize the person has misinterpreted so much of what he or she has seen and heard.
I’m not angry about it, of course. I realize we all do the same things. We all misunderstand what we see and hear in others. We see things that seem vaguely like us and it’s easy to leap to conclusions. And when I realize that, it makes me sad — because it makes me feel terribly misunderstood and alone — but it also makes me yearn for more people who are willing to make the effort to understand one another.
Don’t we all want that? I think we do, but those of us who are less like the norm around us are more sensitive to the realization that we’re misunderstood.
I’ve asked myself why I’m so desperate for someone to know me and understand me. It’s not the desire for admiration of crowds. It’s not a desire for fame. It’s the desire for that rarest of thing in our society today. It’s a desire for real intimacy.
For the most part, it’s safer to be strangers with others. If they don’t really know our hearts and minds, they have less for which to judge us. And if we project the image they expect to see, they’ll like us and assume we’re one of the crowd.
For me, that’s not enough. I wish it were, because I know how to show people what they want to see and how to make them like and approve of me. I know how to charm people and put on the show they expect. (I was taught these skills as a child and I was expected to use them.) But when I do that, those people for whom I perform don’t know the real me.
And that leaves me feeling terribly alone, despite their approval.
I want something more difficult. I want to expose my faults and frailties and weaknesses — openly and honestly — and I want someone to understand me and to think that intimacy with me is worth it. I want someone to believe that I am worth loving — and that I offer something so good that my faults are worth overlooking while I continue to work on them.
All I want and all I need is someone who believes in me, who understands me, who loves me — and who allows me to believe in her, who allows me to understand her, who allows me to love her.
That’s what real intimacy is about.
I know I can’t have intimacy with crowds of people and I can’t have strangers understand me. I know that when I encounter strangers — such as the woman at the store tonight — there’s sometimes going to be misunderstanding and embarrassment.
But walking through crowds of people — like walking through a thick blanket of fog — isn’t so bad when there’s one person who knows you and loves you. That kind of intimacy with one person makes living among strangers completely different and very worthwhile.
That sort of intimacy is like walking through the fog of the world holding hands with someone who you can trust and count on. And that changes everything.