When you can’t find the right words to describe somebody

You, my friend, are greater than the sum of my rectangular words.

As I was sitting at a coffee shop supposedly getting work done, an old memory from two summers ago strode into my distracted head. My close friend and I were in our little dorm at summer camp during the summer of 2016, both tucked into our separate beds with the lights out. We were staring at the same dark ceiling, chatting through the humid air hovering above us, about I don’t remember what. Eventually, our conversation tapered off. Thirty seconds of stillness went by and she broke the silence.

“How would you describe me as a person?”

Surprised by the question, I collected my thoughts for about a minute and then started rambling about how I knew her as a person, and then her strengths and weaknesses. I talked about what I valued in her as a friend. My words stumbled pathetically as I kept burrowing into the back of my head to think of more. There was so much, I don’t know, stuff there. I’ve never been asked before to tease out a single thread from that giant quilt of shared memories to say, in any coherent way, “This is you.” I eventually turned around the question, and asked her if she could describe me in as few words as possible. With a breathy sigh and an “Ok..” she started off with a monologue about what I meant to her but when she came to the part of describing me in words she got stuck. “I don’t know,” she said. “You’re a lot of things. It’s complicated.” It’s funny that both of us, best friends up to that point, who’ve survived high school together, weathered drama, grief, stress, and adolescent problems together, and have now been spending the last month in a foreign country traveling together, had so much trouble describing one another.

The people who know us the best often have the hardest time describing who we are. Maybe it’s not all that surprising: I remember reading a quote from a Waitbutwhy post that went “A word is simply an approximation of a thought — buckets that a whole category of similar-but-distinct thoughts can all be shoved into.”

Surely we come to know a lot about the people closest to us. But hand-picking just a few rectangular adjectives to accurately describe the contours of their character (which, after enough time, has been kneaded and sanded in our heads into wiggly forms that eventually come to look far from rectangular) is a surprisingly hard undertaking.

I don’t really know what this memory means, or if it’s even as deep as my sentimental mind is making it seem right now. But I think it’s important to, every once in a while, recognize the very few people in our lives who become more than just rectangles to us.

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student || gloriawfeng.com

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