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.

A recent essay on NPR titled, Americans Are a Lonely Lot, surprisingly finds that older people in our society are the least lonely and the youngest, the most. Social media and screen time in general are clearly identified as accelerators of those feelings of isolation, but I sense they’re just more of the distractions we’ve always had to deal with on our way to focusing on ourselves. Finding that person at our core is ‘the secret of life’; a secret my mother told me she glimpsed under the influence of one of the childbirth drugs of the 1940’s, but never found again—both metaphorically and literally. How ironic that I should glimpse it with the clarity and euphoria created by just a good walk.

I watch people claiming they’re only happy when traveling the globe (even though the literal experience of travel is so onerous today) and realize how many of us are running toward the very distractions lowering the visibility of who we are. The more one engages in ‘socializing’, the worse the loneliness can be—unless we take that knowledge of our true selves with us wherever we go. I sense that’s why engaging with others on social media creates a vacuum instead of a community, especially for the very young. Being swayed to act in a certain way by others parallels the end of the poem mentioned at the start of this essay. Anna Swir suggest the conflict arises when one of our other selves wants to lead us down a different path than the one our true self has chosen. That’s a problem writers and musicians can be counted on to discuss at creativity retreats forever.

I found myself responding to a writer recently who curates a Sunday poem for a self-selected group of recipients, of which I am a happy member. That’s how I first connected with Anna Swir’s poem titled, Myself and My Person, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. I wrote to her, “That sense of who we are at our core, without any tie to anyone or anything else, is one of the most calm and peaceful feelings one can imagine. Some people never get there. It takes a lot of work, and when it comes, it just steals up on you without warning—a wonderful surprise.” It is indeed. Don’t let your “self” be a stranger.

8 Responses to The Stranger We Must Know

  1. Hi Sidney…At the end of the day, all we truly have is our true self and the hope that we are digging deep to find out who that person really is. Personally, loss of a loved one and accepting love from others has helped me peel away the layers at finding that person. It takes practice and commitment to be comfortable in your own skin. Namaste…

    • Ah yes, the acceptance has a lot to do with it. But I also find there are few who actually recognize their skin as their own. Lots of work in living well!! Thanks for commenting.

  2. The Stranger We Must Know is an exceptionally thought-provoking essay and it will take me weeks if not longer to fully absorb.

    I agree that identity is a life long pursuit and for myself I have too often traveled blind alley’s thinking, as you suggest, that I could find it through reflections back from others. Early in life I came to realize that positive reflections back from others, ones I needed to support my ill formed sense of identity, were short lived, too often led me astray, and could be forming a negative habit-forming dependency. I came to find, as you may be suggesting, that social connections are valuable in propelling my own sifting process of identify discovery but never the the answer.

    Inherent in your essay is that while young we may feel a certainty in identity, it is more difficult to hold on to it as we grow older and have more experiences with ourselves in.

    In summary I think this is one of our life pursuits and perhaps the most significant tonic for loneliness. Perhaps if we truly knew and appreciated ourselves we wouldn’t be as lonely, even in the company of others.

    Thank you.

    • Agreed, Paul, but boy is it hard. But from the number of thoughtful young people who have been emailing me about this, I’m finding that it’s a universal that knows no age limit! Many thanks for your considered response.

  3. I heard a man recently say he liked to find a comfortable spot in the woods and sit there for an hour or so and clear his mind of anything and everything except what he was hearing or seeing in that spot: maybe water trickling from somewhere, the birds going about their business, the soft sound of the the breezes in the pines, leaves rustling etc. The term you hear a lot lately is “authentic self” which for some reason really makes me cringe. However, it’s always in the simplicity of nature that I feel at my best and most “me”, so I’m going to try this this summer and see what happens. I’ll let you know…….xo Cally

    • Works for me, too, Cally. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that. One can clear the cobwebs and be peaceful in nature’s space, but holding onto that self before it became adorned with all sorts of other things of life is very hard in daily living.
      Also agree 100% about the ‘authentic self’.

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