How Best Not to Know Your Friends

JONATHAN CARAROLL | OPINION COLUMNIST

Appearance: it’s a complex concept. On one hand, a person’s appearance is the notion of how others visually perceive him or her at face value: she has blonde hair, he’s wearing a blue shirt. To those with good eyesight, either naturally or with corrections, it seems like a straightforward idea. On the other hand, though, the word “appearance” bears with it the connotation of something that others perceive which may be used as a sort of facade: that statesman appears congenial, but he uses all sorts of devious methods to get his way. In this sense, appearances are much more tricky; we may go through our entire lives as victims to some appearances that we never truly see through.

In our culture, we abhor the idea of being wrong. Accordingly, the thought that we may be caught up by the mere appearances of others (in the latter sense of the word) can be debilitating, leaving us prone to paranoia as we grapple with the fact that even our seemingly closest friends might easily hide some of their truths from us–put up appearances–and we may thus be wrong about them our entire lives. We may subdue this mindset by reassuring ourselves that others shouldn’t have any need to put up appearances around us, that we can trust them, and continue to positively live our lives. However, the appearances we put up to deceive others and the ones others simply visually perceive of us are not so different, as both tend to find their origins within ourselves and their realizations in others.

Appearances, regardless of intent, must be generated by the self and interpreted by others. We may not think of manipulating others when selecting what to wear in the morning, but the reality is that we make that choice and others interpret it, no different from those appearances that people construct with a more intentional motive. I don’t mean to suggest that wearing a shirt is a sort of lie. It could be, if used to pretend that one does not have a tattoo inked across one’s back, but on most days most of us do not intend to mislead others with the clothes we wear. Yet we choose which clothes to wear, and those choices send a message, and that message is interpreted by those around us. And the line is not drawn to just encompass clothes. The actions we take at any given moment and even, one might argue, the words we voice create appearances in their own right. In this way, others’ perceptions of us are little more than appearances.

If our relationships with our fellow humans are mostly appearances and appearances are subject to misinterpretation and manipulation, then how is it possible to have authentic relationships? The best answer lies in trust. If we trust our interpretations of the messages that others provide for us, then we may trust the persons who provide us with those messages. No, we may never fully get past appearances.. Still, relationships bred of trust are stronger than those based on fact. If we know another person, we may call ourselves correct and move on from there. If instead we must trust another person, we must constantly choose to trust that person. From that point, maybe we’re right, maybe we’re wrong. For a relationship we’re invested in, though, that inaccessible knowledge shouldn’t matter. We should aim to live our lives truthfully, to give our appearances credence with what we hold to be real, but when it comes to others we have to rely on trust, not truth. Even if truth appears at times to be paramount, trust is a more authentic way to forge relationships. With trust, we must live those relationships, not simply establish them.

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