If we truly understood each other – if we’d do the work of gaining understanding – we’d put ourselves in the best position to be able to solve any issues we come to. At least this has been my working hypothesis. With this in mind, I have set out on a different goal when I’m in an argument or debate: I want to understand the other person’s point of view, their premises, and how they got there.
When we are understood – it feels like a great gift; a huge relief. “It is a luxury to be understood,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. So much of understanding another person is connected to the work of understanding ourselves. Thus it is with typical psychiatric insight that Karl Jung said,
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
A long and sumptuous read
My wife and I took a long and sumptuous read through Paul Tournier’s 1962 classic, “To Understand Each Other” (noted in an earlier post). We took several months to go through it’s 60 pages, simply reading a section at a time, discussing, debating, arguing, and even coming to more understanding.
The ‘I cannot understand’ really means ‘I can’t understand that my [spouse] is different from me, that he thinks, feels, and acts in a quite different manner that I.’
So [the spouse] feels judged, condemned, criticized. All of us fear this, for no one is satisfied with oneself. We are especially sensitive to blame for shortcomings which we ourselves find stupid, and which we have never been able to correct in spite of our sincerest efforts.
“Lord! Grant that I may seek more to Understand than to be Understood.”
St. Francis of Assisi
As long as we are preoccupied with ourselves being understood, we are in danger of remaining miserable, overcome with self-pity, demanding, and bitter. But with the desire to understand, “comes an awakening that can transform our relationships,” says Tournier.
As soon as person feels understood, they open up, and lower their defences to be able to make themselves understood.
Yes, the “how” question is inevitable. We want skills, steps, and procedures. Yes, I know. I know this first hand, and I also know this is not the first step toward understanding. As Tournier states in the beginning of his book:
To achieve understanding – we need to want it.
And he poetically ends his book with:
The key to understanding, the secret of living… is a discovery, a conversion, and not simply an acquisition of new knowledge.
I suppose you want Answers
You want answers about the “how” – as if this too, is merely achieved by the acquisition of new knowledge. But the person you care for the most, the person you love and who loves you, just wants you to start in the direction of wanting to understand.
Put down your skillful debating weapons, relinquish your grip on your arguments, and take all the time needed to understand the person in front of you.
For fear of repeating myself, I love Jesus’ response to the woman caught and brought to him to judge in John 8. I love his silence, his listening, his economy of words, and I love his understanding. I love how he enters her world, though she was thrust into his. We might want more to have been said, but the encounter on its own bewilders us out of a propositional-debating posture. Jesus listening to us, is the first insight we need to be able to listen to another.
Of course, this is more…