In a recent piece, writing about our tendency to think we can disguise our true selves, I wrote something like this:
“The truth of who one is always shines through.”
I meant that though its operation is mysterious, somehow the essence of who we are and what we are is accurately conveyed to others. Despite what we might want to keep hidden, and conversely, despite our lament that somehow no one ‘really gets me’—which usually means no one understands how brilliant or empathetic or generous or loving I am—somehow those with whom we deal, even remotely, get who we are. It’s almost as if the Oscar Wilde image in Portrait of Dorian Gray—of a man whose degenerate life progressively transforms a portrait once painted of him—comes true for all of us. How we appear reflects who we are.
This is truly uncanny when you think about it. Whole areas of literature, notably in Shakespeare studies, are devoted to the truism that there is a gulf between appearance and reality. People in Shakespeare plays wear masks and disguises which fool all their adversaries. Women dress up as men and men dress up as fools or beggars, and no one finds them out until they reveal themselves in the end. Everyone dissembles and pretends to be good, especially villains like Iago, and then turn out to be the embodiment of evil. The basic idea and moral is contained in proverbs, such as, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
And yet, what I just said is that, where people are concerned, you can. What a person is comes through somehow in what we see and hear and touch and sense, however vaguely. The question is, how? Given all we now know about the apparently solid world of matter, which physics now tells us is composed of smaller and smaller bits of virtual “nothing,” how does the appearance of a person or even a thing convey its inherent truth, its value, its essence? How can we judge a reality that science has proved is so fundamentally different from what it appears to us, to our normal senses, to be?
Actually, we are quite used to evaluating things based on their appearance. Men judge women, almost exclusively at first, by their appearance. Hence the multi-billion dollar cosmetic, apparel and facelift industries. Women, increasingly these days, judge men in the same way: by the cut of their clothes, which indicates apparent wealth or status, or by the prominence of their jawline, or the amount of hair they still have on their heads, or the tightness of their buttocks. It should be added that for both genders, there are different evaluation metrics used for different intentions, i.e. whether one is looking for a long-term partner or a short-term roll in the hay. But in both cases, the way someone looks figures prominently into the judgment. Nor does the “what you are shines through” statement necessarily restrict itself to looks alone. Who you are can be conveyed by a way of standing or walking, by a way of listening or talking, by the kind of attentiveness or lack thereof that one projects, not to mention what one actually says about others or life in general. But all of that is, in this arena, somewhat beside the point. What is really meant by the phrase is that each person broadcasts a signal, and in return some not-necessarily-sensory sense that we all have, to one degree or another, is able to pick up such subtle signals from every person we meet— signals about who he/she is and how he or she will behave in given situations. We have a feel for how much and whether we can trust someone in a crisis, and whether we would want to spend a lot of time with that person that goes well beyond outward appearances. And even beyond that lies the mystery governing why certain people are attracted to each other. Some scientists reduce it to pheromones and/or the compatibility between individual chemistries; astrologers attribute it to heavenly configurations at our birth; others attribute it to subtle scents that each sex, even below the level of consciousness, can perceive; or emotional pattern preferences we’ve picked up from our families. And within cultures, certain physical attributes and dress and makeup and behavior patterns tend to loom larger in how attractive any ‘other’ is perceived to be.
It makes sense, of course, that this would be the case. After all, the very essence of mating and reproduction depends, so biologists tell us, on a female making the right choice for a mate—not only a dependable one, but one who will contribute the best possible set of genes to her offspring. So the way one looks, which biologists would reduce to the sign of a prospective mate’s health and therefore possession of beneficial genes, is of crucial importance in the competition for reproductive success, and thereby, of life itself. The same is true, on a more general but no less important level, in the social need for alliances.
Such evolutionary requirements might also help explain the ubiquity of deception. If so much depends on an animal finding a mate possessed of the “right” stuff for the propagation of the species, then it might be useful for an individual to pretend to have more of it than he/she actually has. A male might pump himself up to greater size, or display more ease spending his presumed wealth than is warranted by the facts. A female might spend an inordinate amount of money and time on various aids to enhance her hips or breasts or eyes or lips or scent. Which many in our culture are routinely encouraged to do. ‘It’s fair to deceive if it gets you into the game,’ seems to be the general message. But then does this not militate against the original idea of what you see is what you get? If there is all this deception, then what you see isn’t what you get. What you get, the next morning, is often something far blander and less delicious smelling and healthy-looking.
Indeed, according to Julian Jaynes in his classic The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, deception is the key to consciousness itself, which is to say, to human nature. But not just any deception, because Jaynes was well aware of the many forms of deception engaged in by animals, presumably not conscious, of every sort. What Jaynes was citing as a key to human consciousness was long-term deception. A human can deceive not just in the moment, but over days, months, and even years before revealing his true purpose and nature. Most humans make a practice of this in negotiations, for example: ‘Never let the other party know what you’re thinking. Make him think you’re naïve or dumb or his friend.’ And of course, in war, deception is the heart of the matter. The military commander who best disguises his intentions will generally win the battle. For Jaynes, much of our waking consciousness is thus spent in planning for or engaging in deception.
How, then, can we say that the truth of who and what we are shines through? How, then, can anyone have any confidence at all that he or she will be able to judge a partner sufficiently well to base a decision as important as sex or marriage upon it? And if that judgment turns out to be wrong—and results in breakup or divorce or worse—does that mean that who a person is can never be counted on, never actually shines through?
These are imponderable questions. The major task of life is trying to cut through pretense and deception in order to find the truth of another person’s, or another group’s or another nation’s real nature and intentions.
So we are back to the original question: just what can it mean that ‘a person’s essence shines through?’ Can we even say it? Perhaps. Perhaps what we can say is that we must, on some level, believe it; must believe that there is a level of knowing, not reducible to logic, that comprehends the inside based only on the outside. Though even as we say it, we must add that this belief varies between cultures. In some cultures, like the Italian for example, people almost never believe a first impression. It is taken for granted that everyone is always trying to make a better impression than is warranted (Italians refer to a whole cluster of ideas and practices relating to this creation of a good impression as bella figura), and that it is wise to expect from others not only deception but outright betrayal. That, of course, leads to the very large problem of mistrust and even paranoia in almost all Italian interactions. Most Italians accept this, since it is generally considered better to be surprised by genuineness than to be made a fool of. And where the folkway known as mal occhio is at issue, it goes even further. For those who believe in the evil eye, any attempt to admire what someone else does or has is met with the greatest suspicion by the one admired. This is because that admiration, in the evil eye world, obscures beneath it the actual intent to harm. If I admire something you have or do, it means I actually envy it, and would either like to have it as my own, or, if I can’t get it, for it to be diminished or destroyed. Better that you should suffer loss than that I should be without. On the other hand, most people in evil eye cultures would not only take precautions (hence the use of amulets), but would also assume that they know what you are really like. They would assume that you are envious and willing to do whatever you can to get what they have. But what if you have no such intention? What about your essence coming through?
One must admit that it is a very shaky thing, this essence. What do we even mean by it? Is there an essence or essential truth of a person? Some fixed, inherent way of being that is genetic or generic, one of a kind? Or would it be more accurate to say that people are more situational—good in some contexts and nasty in others? Honest and straightforward in some, and deceptive and ruthless in others?
Perhaps one could say this: that, one way or the other, via honesty or dissembling, what a person essentially is comes through (once, after several days in a sesshin, and spending endless hours finding fault with every other person’s quirks and tics, I suddenly saw each one, tics and all, as perfect; perfectly unique and thereby possessed of a transparency, an authenticity that I would not change for the world). And we realize it sooner or later. Of course, we would prefer to realize it sooner, before we make fools of ourselves. But how? For one thing, by getting to know ourselves and our proclivities better. For example, if we can keep ourselves from believing what we truly do not believe, but which our hormones or need for company or money or addiction or flattery pushes us to believe, then we might be better able to perceive what an other truly is. The problem, that is, may be as much in ourselves and our need to believe, as in the absence of that “shining through.” Which is not to say the problem is an easy one to solve. Most of us are so shaped by what the other thinks of us (Sartre noted that we are literally made by the other, our self image constructed by how the other sees us), that we are easily duped, and most of us know it. We are easily induced to like those who seem to like us, or seem to be like us. We are always inclined to evaluate such people with more goodness or genuineness than they turn out to deserve.
Given all these barriers and qualifications, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the entire mechanism, both the shining forth and the perception of that shining forth, remains a mystery. For most of us most of the time, it’s an obscured one, and we find that we cannot really and truly know another until we have taken the plunge into some sort of relationship. Taken a bite of the apple. And by then, it’s often too late. All we can do next time is try to purge ourselves of all the inducements that we are aware of, and try to uncover that inner sense we all have—that evolution has forced us to have—of what another is, and let it operate as it should. To tell us whether another is hostile or friendly, genuine or phony, a true match for us or a disaster. This sense or intuition will not necessarily be conscious, or even brain-based. It’s not necessarily amenable to practice, for it’s a commonplace of our time that most of us keep making the same mistakes in judgment over and over. Rather, it will be prior to our usual knowing. We might call it a kind of gnosis, heart knowledge perhaps. And what it comes down to is that we perceive far more than we know, far more than we give ourselves credit for. Psychologists have done numerous experiments with this, demonstrating that we perceive quickly, almost automatically, and well before we are conscious of even having a perception, much less a judgment about it. Nor, again, do we even know if all the kinds of perception involved are being measured. Is there a psychological measure for “heart knowledge,” for example? How could there be when science does not even acknowledge its existence? And yet…
And yet all we may be able to conclude is that it appears to be useful to pay attention: attention to what we actually perceive; and equal attention to what we con ourselves into perceiving for extraneous reasons or needs. After that, if we’re truly attentive, we might at some point tap into the operation of that subtler, prior kind of perception, and realize, as I did once during that sesshin, that people really do project quite uniquely who they are; and that we on our side actually can and do perceive it quite exactly.