The Stranger We Must Know

The Stranger We Must Know

There are moments
when I really feel more clearly than ever
that I am in the company
of my own person. ~
Anna Swir​

 

Not long ago, walking aimlessly between competing appointments as one does in New York City, I was suddenly filled with a feeling of who I was before life made me who I seemed to be. What a surprise (and delight!) that sense of personal identity was at this age. It was so exciting and calming at the same time, that I stopped still in my tracks, wanting to hold onto it long enough to explore it thoroughly and have it forever. In the polish poet Anna Swir’s poem excerpted above, she continues her revelation about her ‘own person’ to say the feeling ‘comforts, reassures and heartens’ her just as her body is reaffirmed by the sight of its shadow. And even though my own feeling of ‘who I was before…’ was fleeting, it was as real as that image we cast with the light at our backs. I described the discovery to my therapist the first time it happened, and he smiled in his enigmatic, Freudian way, as if to say, ‘that’s our goal.’

I’ve questioned myself many times since then, wondering why I had to wait so long and reach so far back to find that person who became a stranger. If you’ve done any reading on self-identity, you know there are many who feel we are who we are only in relation to others. That is certainly one of our personas, but not the one I’m talking of now—the most essential one. In fact, the people we are with family, friends, lovers, spouses, charges and colleagues are the least likely to be our ‘selves’. Reading an article recently about Maj. Monica Marusceac who became the second woman to fly an AV-8B Harrier fighter jet in the fleet, I couldn’t miss her telling comment: “I always worked very hard to fit in, and in the process of trying to fit in with your peers, you lose a little bit of yourself.” A writer asked me the other day what I felt when that real self of mine manifested, and I’m still trying to answer.

The struggle to hold onto the feeling long enough to examine it seems important because I realized it was a very special friend from long ago that made me feel at peace in a way no person, work of art or drug ever could. I knew it briefly, sometime between my child and young adulthood, as a very early marriage started my newly adorned self down a different path. It may be that we all get teased and seduced by life at that age whether we marry or not. Being unfamiliar with who we are at our core, so we can hold onto it no matter what distractions get thrown our way is at the center of our loneliness.

New studies are being published almost daily stating the toll loneliness takes on our society, and the devastating impact it has on our health. It makes me squirm to remember how I told my mother that loneliness wouldn’t kill her, only to find now that a nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna claims it will. What did smart-alecky me know about it when I was so wrapped up in my cocoon of busy-ness? My past declarations and lack of empathy are embarrassments I live with in memory today. And still, I cut myself some slack when I realize I had no way to understand my mother’s feelings as I’d never experienced them myself, because I hadn’t allowed that self of mine to take center stage.

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