30 July 2008

Longing To Be Understood

It's nothing new, but lately I've been more aware of how poorly people understand each other, and how desperately we all want to be understood. I know it's cliché for young people to moan that their parents and other authorities "just don't understand," when actually there's quite a lot about youth and growing up that adults remember rather well and comprehend well enough. We adults have our own ways of whining that "nobody understands," even though it may be the case that some other people just don't like us, whether they really know us or not. Nevertheless, setting aside the persecution complexes of the perennially paranoid, the teenager in all of us seems to have a valid point: people don't understand each other. Yet, each and every one of us wants to be known, understood, appreciated and loved for who he is.

I know that I want very much to be understood, and, yes, to be loved for who I am. But there are days when I despair of such things altogether. To be sure, there are people who love me and care about me, and there are some people who know me better than most do. My family and friends, my congregation and my closest colleagues know many things about me, including many of my faults and failings, my quirks and idiosyncracies; to a certain extent, they know me. Such knowledge of another person is inherent in having a relationship; which is why we all want to be known as we are, because we are created to live in relationship with God and one another. However, even the people who know me best, do not always understand me. In fact, I am surprised at how frequently my nearest and dearest loved ones misunderstand what I am thinking and feeling, and consequently misinterpret what I say and what I do.

Little misunderstandings in the course of everyday life can actually be cute, even humorous, and perhaps endearing in our family and friends. Occasionally, they can be quite frustrating, and at times hurtful. Being more aware of the extent to which people fail to understand each other, I've been thinking that we all need to be more patient with each other, less defensive, and more diligent in our efforts to listen and communicate before making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. That doesn't seem terribly profound or complicated, but my observation is that we generally proceed as though we had ourselves and everyone else figured out, even though we don't. When my dear wife describes something I've evidently done or said, commenting on what she took my words or actions to reveal of my inner thoughts and feelings and intentions, as often as not I won't remember doing what I did or saying what I said, mainly because it simply wasn't invested with any profound premeditation or deep significance, and whatever I was thinking or feeling at the time was something else entirely than she was led to conclude. And that's an example in the case of the person who knows me best (after twenty-three years of marriage). There are probably certain situations in which another man, especially another pastor, might have an advantage over my wife in understanding me, but by and large she's got the best chance of knowing my heart and mind, if anyone does. Yet, she doesn't always.

If the people who know and love me best do not understand me, it's hardly surprising that other people miss the mark in their measure of me. It is frustrating, though, when people who don't understand me proceed on the presumption that they do. I'm weary of evaluations and expectations based upon assumptions concerning me that bear no resemblance to who I am. I don't suppose that such things are done maliciously; sometimes the false assumptions are quite flattering. Either way, I'm not really known, and the possibility of any genuine relationship is hindered, if not prevented or destroyed. I'd rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I'm not. Mostly, I'd prefer to be loved for who I am, but such understanding is elusive.

There are countless examples I could give, but it won't be necessary. My assessment is that pretty much everyone shares this same sort of experience and frustration (but I won't presume to know how anyone else feels about it). There are, I think, a variety of reasons for it. Often the difficulty stems from the way we communicate; we're not as careful and precise as we need to be, perhaps because we're allowing our emotions to drive our words faster than our brains can keep up. That was a problem for me in the early years of the Lutheran Hymnal Project, especially in my e-mail conversations. I didn't mean any harm, and I really wasn't angry with anyone, but I'd fire off passionate responses to various things in a way that came across quite aggressively, even mean spirited. In retrospect, I have often marvelled that anyone continued to put up with me. I'll be forever grateful to my dear friend, Paul Grime, who was such an excellent project director. At one point, he gently admonished me to consider the way I was approaching things, and he gave me some very helpful suggestions toward a better method of communicating. His good advice for e-mail conversations could also be applied more generally: (1.) Don't respond immediately, but take a breath and a step back; allow some time for reflection before replying. (2.) Once you've drafted a response, don't send it right away, but sit on it for a while, even sleep on it for a night, and then re-read it again before sending it. (3.) If you need to vent and blow off steam, share your frustrations confidentially with someone you trust, and get it off your chest that way, rather than spouting off to others in a way you'll regret. Paul offered to be that sounding board for me, and I took him up on it more than once. I don't know if he ever regretted the offer, but it was a huge benefit to me.

Misunderstanding also arises from the fact that each of us has numerous things going on in his life, running through his head and weighing on his heart, that other people have no way of knowing. We may not even realize, ourselves, the extent to which those factors are affecting the way we speak and act, and other people have no way to gauge those things.

Furthermore, no one really knows the mind or heart of a man, other than the spirit of that man. What is worse, actually, because of sin, we don't even know ourselves correctly. Apart from the Spirit of God, we don't comprehend the depths of our depravity or the pervasiveness of our perversity; nor are we able to discern or grasp the gift and blessing of God in Christ. Thus, we do not understand ourselves, except as the Holy Spirit works in us by the Law and the Gospel, and our neighbor certainly cannot understand us any more readily, nor at all apart from grace.

We are rightly known and truly understood, only as God knows us in Christ. So, too, we know ourselves rightly only in Christ. And we are given to know and understand our neighbor, to love and relate to our neighbor, also in Christ Jesus. That is the point to which my thinking has led me recently. It dawned on me that, as often as I find myself misunderstood, I rarely stop to consider that I am just as likely to misunderstand other people as they are to misunderstand me. Being misunderstood doesn't make any of us right, but it does make it much harder, if not impossible, to be helped, corrected, or called to repentance wherever we may be wrong. The key is that we not take our cues from our presumptions and perceptions of each other, which are likely mistaken anyway, but that we love and deal with each other as the Law of God commands, and that we "understand" one another in accordance with the Gospel of forgiveness. "Forgive us our trespasses," Jesus taught us to pray, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."

While there are ways that I can and should communicate more carefully, clearly and precisely, it is also the case that I should make every effort to be patient with my neighbor, considerate and compassionate, even when he may not be so careful, clear and precise in his communications. I can do so, not because I understand my neighbor, nor as though my neighbor were right, but for Jesus' sake; in the same way that Christ Jesus has chosen to know me according to His Gospel.


Karin said...

:o) I understand. I know that at least I feel the same way about the whole misunderstanding thing and often wonder about assumptions being made etc. SO.....you have explained some things out loud that I do think we all feel. Thanks.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

It's one thing to take note of something, and even to offer ways of comprehending and dealing with this frustration. It's another thing to cope with it in day to day life. It is hurtful to be misunderstood, and all the more hurtful to be dealt with on the basis of that misunderstanding. This is why I have tried to grapple with an appropriate Christian response, instead of simply wallowing in the hurt.

In the past, I have tried to avoid misunderstanding by being as thorough and precise as possible in what I say, and as careful and circumspect as possible in what I do, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or false impressions. By the same token, I have sometimes tended to be defensive of myself, of my words and my actions, when those have been misinterpreted or misunderstood. As I've gotten older, however, I've gradually moved away from those attempts. I'm still as careful and precise as possible in what I say, and circumspect in what I do, but I'm more guarded and more reluctant to say or do anything, instead of trying to be so thorough and comprehensive. In most cases, I've also become more likely to bite my tongue and say nothing when I'm misinterpreted, rather than trying to correct the mistake. The exception is mainly with respect to my confession of the Word of God and my work within the Office of the Holy Ministry. In those areas, clarity is essential. But as far as defending myself, I deliberately shy away from doing so. It almost never helps anything. I figure it's usually best to let people think what they think, and quietly to continue as faithfully as I can in doing what I am given to do.

What I have found most helpful, recently -- and the main reason for my post on this topic -- is the realization that I no doubt fail to understand other people as often and to the same extent as others misunderstand me. Knowing that, it seems to me, is an encouragement to be patient and compassionate, instead of critical and judgmental. Not to say that others are never wrong; but while I can evaluate their actual words and actions, I may be utterly mistaken as to their motivations and intentions, thoughts and feelings (which may also cause me to misintepret their outward words and actions, no matter how plain and obvious those may seem to be). The pain I have felt in being misunderstood thus becomes a reminder to "put the best construction" on my neighbor's actions, and to deal with him in the kindest possible way. It's been rather humbling, actually, to contemplate the fact that I have surely misunderstood my neighbor as often as I have been misunderstood; even though I've rarely stopped to consider that.

sarahlaughed said...

Sorry about this. It got too long. :P


Karin said...

"The pain I have felt in being misunderstood thus becomes a reminder to "put the best construction" on my neighbor's actions,"

Yes. Of course this is not always easy to remember to process either but.....not being as well versed as you in explaining myself, I have often times asked myself when misunderstood that if the other party stopped and thought about it and thought about themselves 'putting the best construction on another person's motives etc, that seems far better than assuming the worst! When someone is angry at me it is usually because they have thought the worst of me. I can't do much about that but forgive them. When misunderstood I think it depresses me most that the other party might presume I am out to get them or I am doing something intentionally to hurt them or get to them in some way. It sort of reminds me of when people honk at me for taking too long to go at a green light. Could it be a child is wigging out in the back seat or you just sneezed or something? I too am more apt to say NOTHING to the person who makes odd comments to me nowadays but still struggle if that is best as it amazes me what I find out later to be their conclusion of MY silence. Thinking the best seems the best policy. Amazing that what God tells us is true eh? WHat a surprise! (yes, sarcasm.....) Ramble, ramble, ramble......

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I empathize with what you describe here, Karin. And it has seemed to me that most everyone feels this way to some extent. The struggle, I think, is not so much to consider how others might learn to understand us better. As you say, the best thing we can do when we are misunderstood, is to forgive, and then to carry on in love. But in considering the ways in which we are misunderstood, we are given a lesson, I believe, as to the ways that we also misunderstand other people and assume the worst. So, for example, the person who honks at you at a green light, while you are trying to deal with a child wigging out, may be a person desperately trying to get his or her own child to the emergency room. I realize it is a challenge, but somehow we have to be catechized not to think of ourselves at the center of things, but to perceive our neighbor in love, and to see both ourselves and our neighbor as living in the presence of God (who loves both us and our neighbor for Jesus' sake).