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Posted: May 27, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Getting to know you, really

"How're you doing?" "What's up?" "Nice to see you!" "Pleased to meet you!"

How easily we toss off such comments in the course of a day to everyone from the dry cleaner to the vegetable stand clerk, even to our own family and friends.
No matter how sincerely meant, such terms are but acceptable shorthand for actually connecting with another human being.

We are then excused politely from making any deeper effort to know - really - how another person is "doing" and, even more importantly, "who" really are the people who people our lives.

Surely we aren't meant to know intimately everyone who passes through our lives or crosses our paths.

Life is too short. It is far better, wouldn't you agree, to know fewer people better than hundreds superficially. (Facebook?) We seek out those with similar backgrounds, lifestyles, common interests or proximity and with time and interaction, we come to know them - to some extent and some more closely than others. We are well served and satisfied if we can count our very best friends on one hand.

However, to know someone truly, deeply, personally is an elusive goal to me, maybe even impossible because at any moment an unknown side or a fact carefully hidden or obscured can come to light. Circumstances that arise can make people do or say things you never foresaw, and suddenly you question just how well you know that person, even know yourself.

For example, a group of us once participated in a "poverty experience" sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service. We each were assigned roles in a variety of family units in varying circumstances. We had a set amount of money - not much - to pay bills weekly, and sometimes there were but pennies left with which to feed the children. One participant, a deeply religious grandmother, discovered that, given the opportunity, she would steal if that were the only way to feed her kids.

How to know someone - really - has been on my mind this week, having attended two funerals. In fact, there will be a third one tomorrow. One was for an elderly aunt, my last aunt. Because she lived hours away, I mainly held impressions I experienced as a child. She liked to laugh, yet I deemed her rather rigid, perhaps impatient and even a little demanding. Perhaps those were good qualities that served her well in her circumstances, but a child perceived them differently. Yet in her eulogy, I learned of a giving, generous, compassionate woman who served her church, community and family with passion, one whose hands were never idle if there were a need to be filled. She enjoyed close friendships with her bridge group and Sunday school class and the respect of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Why did I not know these things?

Another funeral this week revealed to me the soft, sweet, compassionate nature of a man I mainly knew as a quietly efficient and valued county employee, a lawyer and stalwart of his church, my church.

Just his presence conveyed dignity where he worked and worshipped. He was nothing but devoted to his beautiful wife, I saw that regularly, but from his stepchildren, I learned of the ways in which he won their hearts, offered wise counsel when asked and earned their love and respect over the years. From his office mate, I learned of his dry, wry wit, that he loved to play jokes and that he was a good listener and problem-solver. It was nothing less than I might have expected, but why did it take a funeral for me to come to "know" this kind man better than I knew him? He was worth knowing.

Speaking personally, getting to really know one's self, myself, can be the quest of a lifetime and worthy of the time and effort. I didn't actually begin the quest until my soul and spirit turned restless and inspired the beginning of this journey. It was all too easy to think - even at the age of 40 - that one was fully formed and life was an open book, but close to middle age for many of us, figuring out who we really are becomes an important question that never before mattered. "Who" we are isn't just "what" we do, "who" we know, "where" we live or "how" we spend our time. And the "who" can certainly change over the course of a life as we evolve in response to education and experience. The circumstances of our lives form and can define us, but the "who" remains elusive to all but the Creative Entity.
The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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