On Being Known

IMG_2982Is there anything worse than being mis-known? Than someone making a claim about how you feel or think that has almost nothing to do with your actual thoughts or feelings? I remember an occasion after one of our Thursday night poker games in Binghamton when some poor soul ventured that no matter what I said, he knew that what I felt in my heart was different. I don’t even remember what we were discussing—maybe Moby Dick. My friend Brian looked at me at that moment, acknowledging the serious breach that had been made.

And of course, there are worse things—1,000 worse things involving the obliteration of the physical being. However, our ability to say, “This is who I am”—to define our mental and spiritual being (which exists fully in concert with our physical selves), is of tantamount importance, especially in a world in which our physical beings are fairly secure. We are privileged to be able to assert this side of our being. But even when chained, we need this self. Both must be unbound.

For the most part, and it almost hurts to admit this, I do not expect to be known in the world. I rarely put the full force of who I am and what I think and how I feel on display. My writing, and these blog posts over the past few years are a first step. But, whether it is a function of the way people know each other, or the fact that, over the years, I have learned to restrain myself in order to fulfill specific tasks in the world, I no longer expect to be fully known. I feel sometimes caught between the poles of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the bounty of Whitman’s Song of Myself—either worrying about being misapprehended, or standing in a field of grass beckoning “Here I am! Here we are!”

The Eliot pole—and he is not holding Prufrock out as an exemplar, but as a warning—burdens me with the sagging weight of doubt that any connection is ever possible. Even the sirens will pass me by. I feel, at times, profoundly sad that anyone, really, ever knows another. This suspicion is tied up in the gnawing Weltschmerz that descends upon me and sends me reeling into the worst and most stupid kind of isolation. When so gripped, I guard myself with cynicism or sarcasm. But those moments are my worst, never my best. They are too easy.

The Whitman pole buoys me. The contradictions don’t matter; in fact, they are an essential part of me, and the world, the great breathing, aching, loving, ecstatic, terrible world surges through me and restores me. My “I” ceases to matter. I become a vessel for a song made up of all the voices of all the things and all the people. I tend toward those voices with ferocity and devotion. Bring it on! “The dancing wagon has come! here is the dancing wagon!”

However, and here is the rub–I am too full of contradictions, too connected to a world outside myself. I feel afloat in a world that values certainty and consistency. Most people seem to seek firmer ground, to limit voices of dissent. I don’t know why, not exactly, not when we are beings of such profoundly possible connection. I have “everything” tattooed around my right ankle. Then I remember Prufrock. Do people live with such doubt? Do they never explore and expand to meet the world like lovers, ready to be torn to shreds and remade by love. Damnit all. Go!

Maybe we are never sure, never sure enough, and especially not in the presence of love. I know that my greatest struggles with being known have come in the presence of more singular love, when there is one person who must bear the shaking I experience between the poles, and then must love the contradictory, magnanimous, possible heart I carry deep inside. And perhaps this is asking too much of one person to be the secret sharer of this heart. I feel difficult, even to myself, and am not sure whether I am knowable or lovable on my own terms, not in a one-on-one kind of way. Maybe the way I am precludes this. Maybe I am best known facet by facet, and not all at once. I am fifty five years old; time passes, slowly and quickly.

Still, I hear the voices, and sing the songs, and cherish the world that is always there, no matter how great the hardship, no matter how awful or wonderful. And I chose, for better or for worse, to write, to scribble down thoughts and ideas and images and characters and stories all in the hope that they would come alive in some stranger’s mind. I do not sing this world to the angel, unless the angel is you, unless we are all, already, angels.

And in some small and not small way, the hope of being known—asserting myself—seems almost like a betrayal of my charge. Sing the world, you man. Give it up! Disappear! You will never disappear! Keep singing. Keep telling stories. Keep connecting. Know the world and love the world.  Find yourself there.


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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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