I Don’t Understand
I didn’t really understand what you were talking about the other night.
The comment was simple, innocent, straightforwardly honest. It was an utterly unremarkable event in the life the church. Indeed, it was a gracious invitation for further clarification and conversation. And the comment wasn’t even in response to a sermon or lecture that I had poured hours of time and energy and emotional investment into, but a rather light-hearted devotional at a social function. But for some reason, this simple statement came crashing over me like a tidal wave.
You didn’t understand me?! How could such a thing be?! Especially when I am in the habit of communicating with luminous clarity and transparency? And humility. Without exception. Especially when it is self-evidently true that every topic that I choose to speak or write about ought to matter to each person present to the same degree and in the same way that it does to me?!
This was my (mercifully internal) reaction to being misunderstood in a relatively trivial matter. What must it be like, I later wondered, to be misunderstood in deeper, more persistent and painful ways?
What must it be like to be an indigenous person who frequently finds themselves on the receiving end of insulting, racist language and attitudes that demonstrate little to no understanding of or interest in the social realities that have done such incalculable damage to their people?
What must it be like to be the kid who acts out impulsively and violently in school settings because he has only ever known dysfunction and abuse at a string of foster homes? Because from his earliest memory he has always found himself on the outside looking in?
What must it be like to be a sexual minority who is frequently looked at with a combination of suspicion or condemnation by those who have always and only been “normal,” who have no categories for such threatening difference, who prefer debating “issues” to interacting with real human beings?
What must it be like to the person who struggles with addictions—alcohol, drugs, food, sex, entertainment, media, whatever—who daily fights against the self-loathing that isolates, shames, and relentlessly chips away at the possibility of a hopeful future?
What must it be like to be the inmate at the correctional centre who has grown accustomed to having their identity and worth being consistently pinned to their worst decision(s)?
What must it be like to be senior citizen, buried away in an institution, often treated less like a human being than as a problem to manage, struggling daily for dignity, fighting daily with the question of whether or not their life has value, living long days of loneliness and sadness while the losses accumulate, watching friends die regularly?
What must it be like to be the person whose political/religious/ideological views we like to ridicule and heap scorn upon? What factors might have contributed to the tenacious manner in which they cling to ways of looking at the world that seem obviously misguided to us?
The only way we will ever know the answers to any of these (and other) questions is if we ask. And, more importantly, if we listen.
I am convinced that one of the greatest gifts that we can give other human beings is that of trying to truly understand their experience.
Not to hear their story in order to bolster already-embraced opinions or to legitimate tired assumptions.
Not to listen while already formulating a response.
Not to filter their words and actions through established categories, existing ways of compartmentalizing human beings so as not to have to deal with real stories, real hopes, real fears, real struggles.
Not any of these and the countless other ways that we listen and engage with other people without really listening or engaging.
What would it look like to truly put ourselves in the place of another? To discipline ourselves to make our default question, What does the world look and feel like from your vantage point?
This is hard and holy work.
In Matthew 5:41, Jesus says these famous words:
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
The immediate context of these words is a difficult teaching about how followers of Jesus are to treat our enemies. But I wonder if we could apply them more broadly. I wonder if we could interpret Jesus’ words here as a simple exhortation to go above and beyond what is obligatory and expected in all our relationships with others, to walk further along the road than is strictly necessary in our attempts to understand the experience of another.
Or, to put it more simply yet, to truly love our neighbour as ourselves.