You know that feeling when someone just gets you, gets your situation. No need to try to explain or to justify. That person understands. What a rush of relief! A burden lifted off your heart. An untying of the defensive knot in the pit of your stomach.
Quite the contrast to when someone looks quizzically at you or gives you a semi-blank stare and a perfunctory, polite response. That person doesn’t get it. And he or she is not really interested in trying to do so.
Two of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of understanding are as follows:
“A mental grasp: comprehension”; “sympathy.”
Sometimes the former is not possible. We can’t always comprehend everyone and their individual circumstances. The majority of us cannot fathom the experiences of a military combat veteran. It’s hard for me to grasp the mentality of someone who goes through life without faith in God. Sometimes it’s hard for a family member or friend to understand a loved one who struggles with depression or anxiety. The list is endless.
However, when comprehension is absent, sympathy or maybe empathy can and should fill up the difference.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes,
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
One of my primary professors in college taught his students David Sanderlin’s concept of “riding a hobbyhorse” when writing a history paper. A “hobbyhorse” is someone’s individual perception or viewpoint of the world shaped by their unique experiences. We need to be aware of our own hobbyhorse as well as try to figure out the hobbyhorse of the author/historian whose work we are reading.
Like with research, one can identify someone else’s hobbyhorse in real life while still maintaining the integrity of one’s own principles and viewpoint. Extending understanding to another person does not mean we must compromise what we hold to be right and true. It means we show respect to someone whose life experiences have been different than ours.
Understanding is something sorely lacking in today’s society and public discourse.
Everyone nowadays is labeled and pigeon-holed. Groups, demographics, identity politics. Us versus them.
We tend to be scared of what we don’t understand maybe because we’ve encountered something truly foreign to us or maybe because we’re apprehensive that it may challenge our thinking or lifestyle.
Racist. Bigot. Homophobe. Sexist. We hear these epithets thrown around on a daily basis in the media. Perhaps justifiably in some cases. Perhaps more often because we don’t want to admit that the situation or topic around which these ugly labels are used is complex and nuanced.
When we don’t understand a person or a situation or a way of thinking, we resort to petty mockery or personal criticism. We don’t debate an idea or a principle but go after a person. We let our emotions overpower our reason. We invoke flippant sarcasm or ad hominem attacks instead of intelligent wit and logical arguments.
We forget that understanding, whether comprehension or sympathy, is a gift we can give to another. If we can’t attain a “mental grasp,” we can still show sympathy. We can compassionately ask for that other person to share with us and we may find that our own understanding is expanded in the process. Maybe what we can share with that person will help him or her in return.
Whether we’re addressing a different way of thinking or trying to comprehend another person’s health struggle, it takes humility to admit, “I don’t understand, but I want to. Please explain it to me.”
Sanderlin offers this pearl of wisdom in Writing the History Paper,“We will never understand, much less learn from others, if we condemn them for not knowing what we know, rather than respect them for knowing what we do not know.”
We are all children of God. While we debate and hopefully endeavor to seek truth and the common good, we need to remind ourselves that we can all learn from one another.
Again, though he is referring to a study of history, Sanderlin offers sage advice when he states, “The historian strives to understand people in the past that he might better understand himself.”
Endeavoring to understand someone else’s viewpoint may lead us to a deeper gratitude for our own beliefs and life experiences or it maybe it will challenge us to approach some people and situations differently.
Offering support to someone living with with physical or emotional challenges can teach us to have greater patience and compassion and to learn to put someone else’s needs before our own.
We know how freeing and reassuring it is when understanding is extended to us. We need to pray and to strive to offer understanding to others in return.