“Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”
—Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
I’m currently trudging through Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s one of those books high school English teachers love to assign, and high school students love to use as a nice door stop or eye pillow (It’s 607 pages long in like 10pt font with line spacing approximating 0). The book doesn’t have a nice snappy, linear plot. Instead, it follows Toru Okada, just a normal guy without a job, and the many people he meets as he tries to find his cat. While it’s taking me forever to finish, I find the book thought provoking and beautifully written (hence all the block quotes). Mostly, it’s really made me think about the difficulties of knowing others and even knowing ourselves.
Early in the book, Toru Okada realizes he doesn’t know his wife as well as he thought he did. His wife and him have a small argument after Okada buys blue tissues and flower-pattern toilet paper, things she apparently detests. To top it off, he makes beef stir fried with green peppers for dinner, which she also abhors. Okada had no idea she hated these things. While these preferences seem like trivial matters, they bother Okada late into the night. He marvels at how he had lived so long with Kumiko without knowing these things. Eventually, he realizes why the argument was unnerving; the disagreement demonstrates that he will never fully know his wife:
“I might be standing in the entrance of something big and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.
Would I ever see the rest? Or would I grow old and die without ever really knowing her? If that was all that lay in store for me, then what was the point of this married life I was leading? What was the point of my life at all if I was spending it in bed with an unknown companion?”
—Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
In the words of Marty McFly, “This is heavy.” I love how Kumiko’s essence is transformed into a physical space, so large, Okada is limited to only seeing a small corner. That realization seems to haunt him.
Okada’s somber discovery reminds me of a different book that explores a similar question: John Green’s Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobsen sets off to find Margo Roth Spiegelman, the girl he’s loved his whole life (because she’s another teenager with an odd name like him, or at least, that’s my interpretation), only to discover he never truly knew her. He loved the idea of her, an image he concocted unknowingly. He idolized her, belatedly realizing “what a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person” (Green). By placing Margo on a pedestal, Quentin had dehumanized her through transforming her into an ideal:
“Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
—Green, Paper Towns
Margo was a girl. She was as normal as Quentin, meaning she was as intricately and perplexingly human as Quentin. Margo doesn’t know who she is either. It’s a coming of age story, so that’s to be expected. However, Paper Towns isn’t just a narrative about “finding oneself.” The book also explores the longing to be known and understood, even if we don’t quite know ourselves. In a conversation between Quentin’s parents, his dad comments:
“Humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.”
—Green, Paper Towns
Thus, I wonder: Is it possible to ever entirely describe to someone else what it means to be us? To be you?
Labels can be useful in pinpointing tangible aspects of our identity, but they fall short of capturing the full complexity of being human. In last week’s post, I wrote a creative piece attempting to convey one aspect of who I am. And yet, I’m not just Mexican-American. My full self isn’t captured in red, white, blue, and green. I am a woman, a Christian, a daughter, a sister, a millennial, a coffee enthusiast, and a student of satire. The list goes on and on. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve read the full list. (If you’ve seen said list, please forward it to me.)
These questions about understanding others and knowing ourselves seem particularly salient in our current world. Everywhere I look, I hear people clamoring to be understood. From a couple in a heated argument to protesters on the news, there’s many ways of saying “You just don’t understand.” I saw it on my college campus all the time. I see it in every long Facebook rant. People are constantly longing for others to understand their story. When we feel understood, we feel like we belong, like our experiences are validated. And yet, we are also a culture obsessed with finding ourselves. Whatever that means.
Unlike Okada, I don’t find all this identity stuff quite so troubling. (Then again, I’m not married to someone obsessed with the color of Kleenex). As a writer, I like the idea that people will always be a bit of a mystery to me, that humans will never cease to surprise me. That’s the kind of thing that makes life exciting, and you know, gives me stuff to write about. As a Christian, I believe that people are made in the image of God. If humans are this complex, then what does that say about the vastness of God?
“There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.”
—Charles Spurgeon (emphasis added)
And that friends, is how you connect (however haphazardly) Haruki Murakami, John Green, and Charles Spurgeon.