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Stoppard: The Real Thing

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings calls this speech from Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thingthe greatest definition of love.” I’m inclined to agree with her, and have seen it as a touchpoint since high school, roughly the same age as the daughter that the protagonist of this play speaks the words to.

Love and knowledge are often intertwined. Words around knowledge, knowing, and to know share a variety of roots in language. In Old English, the word “cnawan” meant to “perceive a thing to be identical with another.” Conversely, it also meant “be able to distinguish.”

So, on the one hand: Perceiving similarities. On the other hand: Perceiving the differences.

Love comes into play when we not only know, perceive, differentiate, but bring into the mix the idea of caring and paying attention. (In the 1570s, the phrase “to make love” was defined as “pay amorous attention to.”)

I could argue Tom Stoppard that knowing and being known is one side of the coin, and the other is seeing and being seen. As much as we know someone, we also know (heh) that we can’t know them, concretely and definitively. So we can also look, observe, pay attention. And we can care. Even about those who we find difficult. Because, if we look close enough, we can see the differences, sure, but we can also see the similarities.

Today’s contemplation: Consider the people that you know: Yourself, your partner(s), your family, your friends. Consider those you know and don’t know: Your local barista, the subway booth worker at your station, the person you pass on your morning run. Consider those you know and don’t like: The person who cut you off in traffic, a difficult colleague, perhaps someone you normally love who you’re simply not seeing eye-to-eye with at the moment. Can you consider how, even if you don’t feel like you truly know everyone, you can pay attention to them? You can consider your similarities at the same time as your differences? And can you wish them all well? Can you wish them all happiness, health, safety, and freedom from suffering? How does that feel as you work your way through your circles of knowing?