The Magic Show

A guy I was then seeing once overheard me finishing a phone call with one of my best girlfriends. As always with this particular friend, we each ended the conversation by saying “love you, bye.”

“Did you just say ‘I love you’?” he asked, seemingly incredulous. I explained that yes, I had–that with this particular person, along with a handful of others, such was our ritual.

He did respond, in fact, incredulously. With hardly anyone in his life, he said, did he exchange this declaration on any regular basis. To him it seemed not just bizarre but excessive, a cheapening of the phrase.

I sympathized with his point of view. Words’ significance does diminish with overuse. But, I told him, for me that is outweighed by how nice it feels to give and to receive these assurances. It’s not that I consciously question my loved ones’ feelings for me, or think they do mine, but still: there is a wonderful comfort in the regular reminders.

I thought of this exchange upon reading a craft essay by Tim O’Brien this semester–one of the best pieces I’ve recently come across. It’s called “The Magic Show,” and it discusses the way in which writing fiction resembles the performance of an illusionist.

O’Brien makes one of those powerfully insightful observations that, when you read it, strikes you as so obvious and basic you feel idiotic for not having thought of it before.

It’s this: that we can never truly know another person’s thoughts. We can achieve varying degrees of empathy–with someone’s psychology, with their experience–but we can never, truly, penetrate their minds.

We’re compelled by magic, O’Brien writes, because of the inate human desire to know what cannot be known. That desire also makes us determined to penetrate other people’s consciousness, even though we can’t. That’s why, he explains, fiction is so powerful: we can’t really ever know another human, but we, all of us, desperately want to.

No matter how intimate you may become with someone, no matter how many years you may spend together, you will never achieve a real, infallible awareness of their thoughts. You can only know what they’re willing to share.

This is part of what makes relationships, in the long run, work. Mystery is essential. But it’s also what makes them infinitely complicated.

I consider myself a pretty transparent person. There’s not much I can fake–to a degree that exceeds virtue. My face, reliably and unwittingly, betrays my feelings: I have eyebrows that seem to independently transfigure, cheeks that constantly course between a dozen shades of pink.

And I show people how I feel about them. I hold hands, sleeve arms, douse loved ones with frequent kisses and hugs. I routinely punctuate conversations, phone calls and emails with verbal pronouncements of affection. It gives me great pleasure to give and to receive these gestures.

That is, I tend to assume that people I care for know that I do. Not because they can read my mind, but because I am someone who is naturally inclined to both show and tell them. (I don’t consider this, by the way, some badge of great character: surely the impulsive is primarily selfish.)

So I tend to find it the source of some anxiety when, as happens in the context of romantic relationships, I can’t express myself as freely as I’m accustomed. I’m not crazy: I don’t tell someone I love them on the fourth date. Or even the tenth. In fact, I’ve hardly ever said it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some small part of me that, occasionally, feels the urge.

When I feel strongly for someone, I want to tell them. But instead, I do what everyone else does: I guard myself. I express a limited range of emotion. I demonstrate my feelings for the other person via a lexicon of coded signals that I (usually) hope they understand.

And, of course, I never really know if they do.

O’Brien writes that there’s no satisfying our curiousity about other people: “‘I love you’ someone says, and we begin to wonder. ‘Well how much?’ we say and when the answer comes ‘With my whole heart’ we then wonder about the wholeness of that heart.”

It’s true: thank goodness, the mystery persists. But as there’s beauty in mystery, there’s also beauty in our capacity to care for others–and in our ability to tell them so. Even if truly knowing is impossible, I’d say, it’s worth the try.


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