Myodicy, Issue 16, September 2002

Getting to Know You ....

by Theodore Plantinga

The title is a phrase from a popular song of yesteryear. The song continues as follows: "... getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to feel you like me ...." As we respond to these words, romance springs to mind, for it is indeed a love song. Perhaps sex could come into the picture as well. Consider these familiar words: "And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore a son ..." (Genesis 4:1).

The phrase "Getting to know you" might also point to the beginning of a friendship, or perhaps of a friendly relationship in a situation where friendship in the strict sense of the term is not appropriate (e.g. a teacher-student relationship). Many human beings -- if not most -- want people to get to know them in this ordinary sense. To be known by no one at all -- or by no one in the immediate vicinity -- can make a person feel lonely. If you are new in the community and you get invited to a party and there are lots of people there but the person who invited you fell ill and didn't show up, you are left with a strange feeling. Here you are among lots of people, and so you shouldn't feel lonely -- but you do, somehow, because you don't know anyone, and no one knows you. What's to be done? You need to extend a hand and start introducing yourself. Still, it's not so easy. "Getting to know you ..." sounds like something nice to do, but it may be hard to get started.

Perhaps some superficial information about the people we'd like to get to know could get the ball rolling, so to speak. In the fall, when colleges and universities begin a new term, the instructors behold a sea of fresh faces in their classes -- the new students. In smaller institutions, and especially in Christian ones, the idea is that the professors will make a serious effort to get to know the students. nd so, while the students are wrestling with new subject-matter and concepts that are sometimes hard to fathom, the professors are trying to connect faces with the names on their class lists.

Some of the students may drop by the office. One chat is usually enough to connect the name with the face, to the point that so that one develops a sense of knowing the person in question. There may be some discussion of the student's interests, aspirations, home town, and perhaps also apprehensions about higher education.

But not everyone is comfortable with this business of "getting to know you ...." Indeed, there are some who are downright fearful of it. Some of the fearful ones may appeal to legal demands (usually fairly new laws) according to which institutions and officials are not entitled to gather or distribute information about their clients or customers. "I don't have to tell you that." Like prisoners of war, the fearful ones feel entitled to confine themselves to the most elemental basics -- name, rank and serial number, as it were. "Why do you need to know that?" Well, I suppose I don't need to, in the strictest sense of the term. "What are you going to do with that information?" I may try to explain that it's helpful to have some facts about the people you are trying to help. Teaching, after all, is a form of helping. But the student may become suspicious or distrustful, perhaps because of a bad experience in the past.

Considerations like these recently became an issue on the campus on which I teach. One day we got a puzzling form in our mailbox asking us for permission to have our picture placed in the annual student, staff and faculty directory. We were also invited to give permission to have our on-campus phone number listed. What was going on? Many of us were perplexed; some were incensed. After all, such a directory gets published every year in the fall, with pictures and phone numbers and other information; in the case of faculty and staff, the first name of one's spouse is also included. I always found the spouse's name a helpful touch. I generally don't see much of the husbands and wives of my faculty colleagues, and so it is easy to forget their names. But take a look in the directory before heading off to a social occasion, and you can refresh your memory.

I won't go into the local history and chain of events that led to the switch in policy on my campus. That I am not happy with the change will be clear by now. But let's probe some of the philosophy behind it.

The beginning of this essay already indicates that there is a connection between knowledge and love, with love understood broadly as including friendship. Many of the expressions we use in connection with romance and friendship indicate a process of unveiling, in which we let the other see more and more of who and what we really are. In the case of "making love," the unveiling takes place literally: many people can testify that an unveiling on their wedding night was a nerve-wracking experience. Even when you are standing before the one who has made a life-long commitment to love you, you may be afraid to be seen as what you really are, physically speaking.

In the case of friendship, such an unveiling (metaphorically understood) also takes place if the friendship flowers. And it usually happens in stages. The disclosing of significant facts about oneself represents a milestone in the development of the friendship. And such disclosure is often undertaken in fear and trembling, especially by people who feel they have been betrayed in the past. Thus, on the one had we wish to be known by those who are close to us, but on the other hand we fear the process and may well cling to a few secrets that even our closest friends do not know.

The unveiling process may even include an element of confession. There may be something in your past of which you are ashamed, something which, nevertheless, has helped make you the person you are, and now you feel it must be revealed to your new friend or romantic partner if the relationship is to move on to the next level. You disclose it, trembling all the while. If it is accepted and "understood" (a loaded term in this context), you breathe a sigh of relief and feel more anchored to the person to whom you have made the disclosure.

The French saying "To understand all is to forgive all" comes to mind here. There is an element of forgiveness that seem to cling ineluctably to the process of listening attentively to a private recitation of another person's story. That's why getting the rapt attention of your friend or romantic partner ("Are you really listening to this?") is an important step in the process. You may think the moment for the disclosure has come, but then you change your mind. However, once the disclosure is accomplished successfully, it has a wonderful, liberating, bonding effect.

The person listening to you may be responding in love. If he or she is truly a friend or your romantic partner, the presence of love as motivating the response may be presumed. And then, if you are reflective by nature, you may be reminded of the connection between love and knowledge, the connection hinted at in the familiar words "And Adam knew Eve, his wife ...." So what is the purpose of knowledge and information? Part of the answer, surely, is love.

Yet this line of argument may not satisfy fearful students who do not want information about themselves published in a college's directory or posted on its website. I have been queried on this point often enough by suspicious students to know that some of them fear a malevolent intent. "Why do you need that information?" they ask. "What do you plan to do with it? Why do you record it? Why do you try to memorize it?" The implication, clearly, is that I might use the information to harm them in some way, or perhaps to discriminate against them.

Is there any basis for such fears? I would like to affirm that I have never harmed anyone or discriminated against anyone or misused information acquired by me for professional purposes, but if I made such a claim I would not be telling the truth. I am a sinner, like most other people I know. I am all too aware that I am subject to the temptationto use information illegitimately is also there for me. And so, on a very deep level, I understand the reluctance of some students to part with what they regard as personal information. I have felt such reluctance myself from time to time.

I should generalize the point I am making here, for this essay is not intended to be a reflection on my own foibles and shortcomings. The rosy picture of knowledge and information as a vehicle used for purposes of love, a vehicle intended only for use in a loving context, must be balanced by a more realistic picture of knowledge also being used for purposes of oppression. Unless we acknowledge this unpleasant reality, we will not be able to deal constructively with the tug-of-war between those who wish to use directories to facilitate social contact (the "getting to know you" folks) and those who instinctively fear the circulation of information (the "name, rank and serial number" folks). Which group is right? And does it make a difference if the institution in question is Christian?

Perhaps it could be argued that both groups are right. Knowledge and information are sometimes used for loving, benevolent purposes, and sometimes for oppressive, malevolent purposes. Releasing knowledge about yourself is always a bit risky -- in principle, at least. But on the other hand, it is also an action buoyed up by hope. For the most part, I like doing it. I like it when people I meet ask me a bit about myself and listen with interest as I pass on some information and tell them my story. Some may listen politely and promptly forget what I tell them. But there is also the prospect that a stranger will listen with interest and become my friend. Since I'm fundamentally an optimistic person, this hope is uppermost in my mind. And I always have room for another friend in my life.

The Christian doctrine of man's inherent and instinctive tendency toward sinfulness stands at the heart of the issue I am discussing. Some thinkers of a humanistic persuasion are too inclined to assume that human beings only mean well in their interactions with one another, even if, in their short-sightedness, they sometimes do things to one another that are inappropriate or unwelcome. At least they meant well. Christian thought shakes its head and says no and insists gently that there is an impulse toward evil in us.

But there are also thinkers who err in the opposite direction, by assuming that the stranger we meet on life's pathway is always on the verge of declaring himself my enemy and might well take action to harm me. Therefore I must give him no information; indeed, I suppose I should avoid him, if I can. This is a sad attitude, however understandable against the background of the lives of some people who have suffered much abuse and betrayal. (I, for the record, have suffered some, but not much when compared to other tellers of sad tales, and so I have managed my maintain my innate optimism.)

Christian thought tries to strike a balance here. Especially in its Calvinistic manifestation, it is realistic about the potential for malevolence in human beings. But it still wants to emphasize the grace of God and wants to point to others as potentials channels and bearers of that grace. Therefore, to my mind, a fundamental openness to the other who wants to know a bit about me is the appropriate posture to adopt. But in making such a plea, I do want to affirm my sympathy for those members of the human community who have been so badly burned by the misuse of information on past occasions that they feel they must now clam up, so to speak.

How can we reconcile these attitudes in one institution? The current model seems to be to make information disclosure voluntary. Therefore one fills out forms and signs releases. From a legal standpoint this might appear advisable, but it also seems somewhat cold. One wishes that something simpler were possible. Herewith a small suggestion in conclusion.

Academic institutions encourage their students and other members (such as faculty) to maintain websites, or at least home pages. Could we make the disclosure aspect voluntary by at least maintaining website directories in which hyperlinks are used prominently to encourage people to disclose information about themselves on a voluntary basis? In effect this is already done by many institutions with their links to professors' home pages. If a simple routine could be devised for students to type in some material and have a technician or a computer expert convert that material into some sort of HTML format and upload it to a website designated for such a purpose, the student would have control of the content of his information, and the institution would have what it wants and needs, namely, information about its members so that the spirit of community can be encouraged. [END]

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.