To be loved is to be known, the saying goes. Or as Tim Kreider memorably puts it, “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” This is what we believe makes God’s love so miraculous, so fundamentally gracious.

Of course, when it comes to other human beings, this kind of thing is risky business. Because getting to know someone in all their unkempt reality, i.e., beyond the surface facsimile, often provokes a feeling opposite to love. The problem comes when we think we know someone fully but don’t, as is often the case with our so-called “loved ones”(!) or anyone for whom we’ve written the script.

In a recent sermon, my friend Marilu Thomas paraphrased just such an instance from Anya Yurchyshyn’s memoir, My Dead Parents, and it was too rich not to share:

When her mother died of alcoholism and her father was killed in a car accident, Anya was actually relieved. She had experienced her father as cold and aloof and her mother as ineffectual and anxious. Her parents’ disdain and contempt for one another was on display throughout her life, and she blamed her own anxiety and low self-esteem on them.

When Anya was cleaning out her parents’ house, however, she was stunned to find a box of sweet, vulnerable love letters the two had exchanged. Her father had written, “Whenever I leave you, there is an emptiness inside me, a true aching of the heart.” Her mother had responded, “Our love is wondrous; it has a life almost of its own.”

Anya was in shock. Who were these people? She made it her mission to understand who her parents truly were by visiting the Pennsylvania neighborhood where her mother grew up. She walked the grounds of the University of Chicago where they had met. She discovered that her mother’s childhood had been heartbreakingly tragic, filled with trauma and abandonment. Her heart softened in compassion for the girl and woman who had been the mother she didn’t know.

She then flew to her father’s ancestral home in the Ukraine. Much to her surprise, she discovered that he was regarded as something of a hero. You see, after the war he had returned early and often to help rebuild the devastated town. What she had thought of as her father’s selfish absenteeism turned out to be an unselfish devotion to those he had left behind, a fact she didn’t know about him.

Moreover, before she was born, her parents lost her one year old older brother to pneumonia, which etched the pain into the marriage. They did not tell her of his existence until she was ten years old. Anya writes:

“Devastating as it was, this information was a gift, shining a light into the murky corners of my childhood. My father policed my behavior so intensely not because he was a dictator, but because he was terrified of losing another child—his anger was misplaced grief. My mother wasn’t weak—she’d had to be unimaginably strong to survive her childhood, lose her parents, son and husband. I was the product of complicated people… Today I am proud to be their daughter—a person who’s replaced pity with compassion. That compassion opened the door to the emotional prison where I’d long kept my parents. And in turn, it freed me.”

To be clear, Anya’s case is not everyone’s. Sometimes the backstory has a feel-good element, but sometimes the truth turns out to be uglier than we had presumed. Either way, we write others off at our own peril, even when we feel we have every reason to–even when we’ve been forced to bear the brunt of their shortcomings.

Perhaps faith is simply the willingness to admit we may not possess all the facts, not when it comes to other people and certainly not when it comes to God. Or maybe it’s trust that the one who does have all the facts, the good the bad and the ugly, is more interested in ransoming those in captivity to their own backstories than judging them.

If that sounds like too big a risk for a battered heart to take, well, it could be there’s comfort in the fact that some mortifying ordeals are love letters in disguise.