We are not who we seem to be

We are not who we seem to be. Well, maybe you are – but many of us contain unknown stories, adventures and dreams.

 At the end of his life, my father was an accountant, but many years before he was also a freedom fighter.  (The British deemed him to be a terrorist)

 He would bring work home and sit by the kitchen table at a time that he already needed glasses to read the small numbers, yet no one would have guessed that – years before, this bald man was so intensely dedicated to attacking the British soldiers in Israel; and that he was the last prisoner to be freed by them.

 We view the immigrants around for who they are today – a housekeeper, the parking lot attendant, the gardener and all the people who service us on a daily basis. Never knowing their story, never wondering if there’s more to them than meets the eye.

 My friend’s babysitter worked for years to bring her children over here from Guatemala. When her sister died, she kept on working to bring her niece and nephews as well. Every morning she would take the bus to clean homes or to watch other people’s children. Did we recognize her strength and determination and the fact that at night, she would come home to take care of five children? No one knows her story, and the stories of thousands like her.

 In the French movie “The Hedgehog”, the plain concierge was an avid reader and one might even say a scholar, something no one knew about her.  No one paid attention because she was “only” the concierge, this object we don’t pay attention to – just someone expected to do their job.  This made me think of all the people I know who appear to be a certain way, and at the same time we are unaware of the other lives they had.

 I have a friend who, due to some misfortune, lost her house in the hills and is renting in a “not so great” neighborhood. Unless she told you her story, you would never know that she used to have a privileged childhood; eating at the best restaurants in Manhattan, rubbing elbows with famous people, and living in a mansion. She used to know the “Rich and Famous”, and today she is concerned about her expenses. There are so many people with stories like her.

 I have another friend who lives a conventional life for all sense and purpose, and yet she was in the Mossad – the Israeli version of the CIA. I know that she knows things, and I know that she had a different life than most. You would not know that when you sit with her, drinking coffee at Starbuck’s chatting about work and home.

 Most of the people of my parent’s generation had a story. They were absolutely not only who they seemed to be. They immigrated illegally or were Holocaust survivors. They fought in the Russian army, or escaped the Nazis, or – like my mother, they came legally and early before the war, leaving their comfortable life in order to live the life they dreamed of. No one would have thought of the middle-aged woman who used to religiously get a manicure once a week, as the youngster who paved asphalt with her own hands and fingers on a daily basis, the only woman in a crew of five men. That was my mother.  She was the woman who wanted my shoes to match my purse. Years later, when she already lived a comfortable life again, she would volunteer to help the blind. She would come home laughing and crying describing how she tried to teach them to dance. She was that, and yet she was not a very maternal woman. Very few people knew of her volunteer work, she hardly ever shared it with her friends.

 And almost no one knows that my childhood friend who can be annoying and asocial and self involved, received the highest medal for his valor by saving three people, carrying them to safety, and crazily risking his life. Today, he gets excited about finding the best salami in town.

 And then you have the musicians. My childhood piano teacher always looked unkempt and hungry.  She was taunted by kids in the neighborhood who were reacting to her unruly hair and smelly clothes.  We would have never known her tragic life story if it were not for my mother who took pity on her.  She once had a career as a musician in London. And years later, another piano teacher, from Russia. He had his leg broken by the KGB. At least they did not break his hands. (These KGB guys sure had an appreciation for music!) Both of these people were extremely talented, with promising musical careers through their youth, and dreams that went unfulfilled. (Lest you conclude that I know how to play the piano- you are mistaken)

 Then there is my therapist friend who used to be a professional dancer; my client who has written four (unpublished) books, and another friend who has dedicated his life to charity as redemption for a robbery committed by him and his dad at a low point in his life…   No one who knows these people sees a dancer, an author or a robber.  They only see them as they seem today.

 So the next time you see your gruff landlord, your humble housekeeper or your best friend, be sure to ask them about who they used to be.

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About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
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6 Responses to We are not who we seem to be

  1. Martha Carr says:

    Very touching Rachel! I had a colleague once who, in the early 80’s, decided to go interview homeless people living on the street about their lives. It was fascinating (and that was before they were a common sight.) Makes me wonder sometimes if one day, my circumstances were to change, what others would see about me.

  2. Dalia Kenig says:

    Dear Rachel, I loved reading this blog. You wrote so beautifully, about people, with love, sensitivity and respect to their untold and unknown legacy .Every person is a story book. Most of the times we get to know the cover, a few pages, a chapter or two…. it can be true about ourselves as well…
    As a kid I was drawn to listen to my parents friends. Their generation had stories to tell from “another world” about their uncommon life experiences in Europe before the war (world II) and after and their life journey till they reached a comfortable “normal” life in Israel. It fascinated me and moved me emotionally at the same time.
    As therapists and friends we know the power of being a witness to somebody’s life experiences. Unfortunately, that generation of our parents did not talk much about themselves.
    Strangely enough or not, whenever anyone chooses to reveal themselves to me, in the therapy room, a friend or a stranger who stands in line with me and starts reviling about themselves, I feel am in a sacred space and feel honored to be chosen as their witness.
    Good night.

  3. M says:

    I loved this blog. What always amazes me is how few people ASK, “what is your story?” Seems everyone is so busily focused on their own journey, that they miss the insights gained from others around them.

  4. akweryan says:

    I really enjoyed your insightful blog

    I have been studying Mussar and this is a perfect example of so much of what we have learned and how we apply it(or aspire to) everyday life.

    I am so thankful to Maureen for sending it to me.
    Have a great day

  5. Oren says:

    Thank you for the yet another wonderful Story Rachel.

  6. rachel bar says:


    Above is the web site for the street musician in the blog. We met him a couple of days ago in Boulder CO. He is a man of many talents. He sings, composes, writes and paints. It was a pleasure talking to him.
    And no, I am not his manager…

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