Screens, Curtains, and Partitions – Part Two

In my previous post, I drew parallels between how people live and the layers of concealment with curtains and set pieces onstage during a play. I stated that the process of hiding and revealing our interior selves through our external appearances and actions was the only way we had to communicate our internal state. Thus, obscurity is not always deceptive and revelation is not always desirable. If we look at people and know everything about them at once, it is as though we are looking at paintings: we can only see paintings from one side, we cannot see through them to understand more, and we are forced to understand the whole in order to gain proper understanding.

A painting is a cover; it is a concealing surface; it is an object through which no perception may pass if it is to be properly understood. We can analyze the surface that holds the paint, the paints used for the composition, the process by which the paints are applied to the receiving surface, the artist’s intention in producing the painting, how people use the painting, and compare the painting to other paintings. In the end, we still have the painting and its meaning.

Paintings are opaque. Transparent paintings get artists fired. Physically speaking, paintings have no depth. They are flat. However, they have unseen qualities that must be perceived with the heart and mind and soul–intangible attributes, if you will. You and I may do a considerable amount of work in front of a painting to understand it, but we can do nothing behind it; even if the thing is painted on both sides, there is no interior to view. If there is such a thing as a two-sided painting, analysis that goes beyond the literal surface of the painting eventually reaches a layer that demands a complete reorientation that restarts the analytical process. In other words, you have to turn around and look at the other side.

I wish to communicate a disposition rather than an intellectual persuasion. When I was in college, I was in a program that gave me six hours of discussion of great books every week. One of the things that frustrated me the most was that people sometimes expended considerable effort to tweak the phrasing of a working definition. As I could see it, this slowed their growth in knowledge of the text that we discussed on that particular day. Perhaps I felt as though my classmates kept wanting to see through the pages that they read without reading a little further to see how the author answered their questions.

Experience is the ultimate form of knowledge, but it requires evaluation and interpretation. To have a thing itself is more vital to understanding that thing than is information about that thing; information may be derived from that thing, but without the actual thing, we can only relate impressions and perspectives about that thing. Our ability to experience is limited to our senses, five physical senses and whatever counts as spiritual senses. We evaluate and understand less than what we experience, and our attention shifts to various things that we might experience.

When it comes to understanding people, we have to pay attention to many things at once so that we may perceive them correctly. People conceal some things at some times in order to foster a certain perception, and they reveal things at other times to foster another perception. In job interviews, they conceal their insecurities so that they may demonstrate themselves to be competent professionals. In confidential conversations, they reveal their difficulties so that they might connect closely with people who care about them. We gather impressions of people in distinct situations over protracted periods in order to form more accurate ideas about them.

Living people always have an autonomous spark. They can do anything they like, no matter what we know about them. Things that happen contrary to our expectations surprise us; things that happen contrary to our assumptions astonish us. We can see someone do something shocking yet not be surprised; it is possible to be unsurprised and yet astonished. Our knowledge of people progresses asymptotically; we forever approach true knowledge without reaching it because we do not have the things themselves inside our minds. We think ideas about people; we do not think people themselves.

In sum, people hide things for more reasons than to lie. Truly understanding a person demands that we watch how it is that they hide and reveal certain things about themselves; proper exercise of privacy draws out that which is hidden by improper revelation.

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