(Borges and) The Exquisite Vulnerability of Being Known

Simplicity for Haydee Lange

The garden gate is opened

as easily as a turned page

questioned by a regular devotion

and once inside, our gazes

have no need to fix on objects

that already exist completely in memory.

I am familiar with the customs and the souls

and that dialectic of allusions

which any gathering of humans weaves.

I need not speak

nor claim false privileges;

those who surround me here know me well,

know well my afflictions and my weakness.

That is to attain the highest thing,

what will perhaps be given us by Heaven:

not veneration or victories,

but simply to be accepted

as part of an undeniable Reality,

like stones and trees.

–translation by Stephen Kessler

Jorge Luis Borges’ beautiful and seemingly simple poem, Simplicity for Haydée Lange captures perhaps the highest human aspiration – to allow oneself to be known.  The beauty of the poem belies the extraordinary achievement such intimate acceptance represents.  Of course, at some level, we all want to “simply be accepted as part of an undeniable Reality.”

Unfortunately, we all have parts that we find troublesome. Most people work hard to deny basic truths about themselves.  These truths are seemingly unbearable.  We all have thoughts, feelings and desires that are not to be spoken in polite company.  When we cannot own and accept these feelings as part of our human endowment, we marshal defenses.  These defenses protect us from “knowing” undesirable things about ourselves, but they also prevent us from knowing ourselves.  We have become (protected, but,) unknowable.

Some people were mistreated early in their lives, perhaps malevolently, perhaps simply out of benign neglect.  In either situation, it is not uncommon, as a child to create a story-line to explain to oneself the behaviors of the caregivers.  Very often, it entails some form of “if I were a better …”.  Here again, develops a sense that ‘to know me is to … (reject me, aggress against me, find me to be unlovable?)  In any case, the smart money is not to let you know me.

In all of the cases noted above (and in many other instances not described here), we develop what Winnicott described as a “false self.”   To some degree, we all need the protection of a false self in order to function in the world.  It offers us a layer of protection not afforded by our genuine or “true self.”  Like calluses or a mask, the false self is a layer between the world, others, and the true self.  Contact is numbed.

Here is the exquisitely painful irony: knowing that we are truly loved and accepted should help us to come to terms with these fears about ourselves, yet, because of our fears we often conceal ourselves.  Instead, to varying degrees, we relate to others through a mask.  We present a “self” which is not completely true.  If they love and accept that self, we do not grow.  Instead, often, we fear that they love this construction, and would reject us (if they really knew us).  Brashly attempting to present the “true self” without coming to terms with ourselves first is unlikely to work.  When we are not comfortable with ourselves, we are likely to present the parts we are afraid of in very skewed ways.  We all have met people who have tried to put on a brave face in some situation, and only came across extremely awkwardly and made everyone else uncomfortable in the process.

We all have secret selves.  We need some level of privacy within which we can have our fantasies, dreams, fears, etc.  However, gradually finding a safe way to allow a valued other to get to know us, our dreams, our strengths, our foibles and even our downright unlikable parts – and finding that more often than not, they do not run away – helps us to accept those parts of ourselves.  In being accepted by another, we learn to accept ourselves. (In infancy, when the mother smiles at the baby, the baby knows he is loved.  This process is similar.)

One way to effect this change is through therapy.  In therapy, this is a gradual process, arduous at times, terrifying at times, exciting at times.  Eventually, coming to terms with oneself, reducing the need for excessive reliance on defenses – and grieving unfulfilled wishes and expectations – can free us to be ourselves.  Through this, now more acceptable (accepted by us), we can chance a true encounter with a cherished other.  Chancing an attempt at love requires the exquisite vulnerability of being known.

“… those who surround me here know me well,

know well my afflictions and my weakness.

That is to attain the highest thing,

what will perhaps be given us by Heaven:

not veneration or victories,

but simply to be accepted

as part of an undeniable Reality,

like stones and trees.  “