Do You Really Know Me?
By NANCY PATRICK
During the last several decades of my life, I have come to question just how well I really know the people in my life. When you consider your relationships with others, you must recognize that each relationship between you and someone else remains unique. For example, I knew my parents only in their parental roles in my life. Parents don’t usually reveal to their children their past histories except in small bits as they may relate to some current issue.
On the other hand, as children our parents know just about everything about us. They identify our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, and our opinions on just about everything. Their knowledge of their children greatly decreases when adolescence enters their families. At that point, children begin having their own “secret” lives with their friends, their classmates, their teachers, and anyone else with whom they relate.
As a retired high school teacher, I remember many times when one of my students misbehaved in class. In most cases, I would contact the parents to inform them of the incident and seek their help. Amazingly, many parents did not really know their own kids. Of course, they knew their children as youngsters but resisted acknowledging the behavior I attributed to their teen.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “My son wouldn’t do that” or “You must be picking on my daughter because she would not do that.” Ironically, most incidents involved minor infractions common to all teenagers. The parents often became extremely defensive because they no longer knew their children as they once had.
I have used the parent-child relationship to illustrate that we may not know someone as well as we think we do. I have concluded that we know people by what they reveal to us, by what we learn through our experiences with them, but also by their relationships with the other people.
After I grew up, my mother decided to share many family “secrets” with me. Perhaps she thought I would learn from the mistakes of others and not make the same ones myself. I learned about infidelities, abortions, thefts, and other regrettable behaviors by members of my extended family.
Although I still loved these people, I formed different perceptions of them. What they had done did not bother me as much as the realization that they had lived their lives subsequent to their misdeeds as though they had never happened. I felt disappointed in them because they had allowed me to think of them in a better light than I did after I learned their secrets.
I do not mean that I judge them as bad people. I mean that I would much have preferred to know them as real people with all the good qualities they had as well as their human foibles that portrayed an honest depiction of a human being.
When my parents resided in a nursing home, I observed that some of the residents seldom had visitors. Sometimes staff commented on the neglectful families who failed to visit their parents. I often thought about those grown children whose parents sat in the nursing homes alone.
It’s easy to observe unfortunate people such as “neglected” elderly folks alone in a nursing home or even in their own homes and think, “Oh, the poor old thing. How sad that the children treat their parents this way.”
Though some adult children do neglect their elderly parents, there often exists another side of the story that only the family knows. Grown children whose parents neglected or abused them know their parents in a completely different way from those who know them only as sick, elderly patients. They may know (and well remember) parents who drank, hit, deprived, molested, and otherwise mistreated their children.
Just because people grow old and sometimes helpless does not mean their histories disappear. Some of these people may have reformed their lives at some point and become pillars of the community. The people who met them during those years know them as fine, upstanding citizens worthy of love and respect.
While the adult children may recognize and appreciate the changes in their parents’ lives, they do not lose the memories and traumas of their childhood. Psychologists often refer to the “formative” years in a child’s life. Those years occur in early childhood. Babies left in cribs to cry rather than being held and soothed suffer permanent security issues. Children whose parents slapped or hit them with objects don’t forget the sheer terror of verbal and physical abuse hurled at them.
Some families harbor deep secrets they fear will harm the new reputations they have earned as reformed adults. Family secrets create problems that linger and affect (and infect) all the family members—not just the ones who committed the shameful deed. These secrets create fear, suspicion, distrust, and doubt within the members. I wrote the following verse after discovering that someone I greatly admired had not lived up to the standards he taught.
Someone slipped and fell today
From off the high place
Where I often gazed.
He slipped and fell today.
And I will never be the same.
My husband has always said people can see through me like a pane of glass. Though such transparency can make one vulnerable, it can also free a person from the burden of pretense. I learned as a young teacher that I could positively influence my students by presenting myself honestly to them.
I didn’t use my class as a therapy session, but I did relate personal experiences when they related to our studies. I had many, many students over the years tell me how much they appreciated my candor. You see, in my adult life, many people consider me a wonderful person—much better than I really deserve; however, I do not want unearned esteem or “stolen valor.”
We should take great care before putting people on pedestals. Pedestals can have weak bases or they can teeter from their height. I much prefer to know, love, and respect those whose clay feet God has molded, a God who knows us, accepts us, and forgives us for our weaknesses.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing