Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

On Understanding

Originally posted on December 30, 2010

A friend of mine responded to my blog #104 writing that he wonders about whether anyone can understand another person. The answer is: Partially, yes, if  the goal is that the other person feels understood. The best way to do this is to empathically respond to what is being said and allow oneself to be corrected and try again until there is satisfaction. But that’s only regarding a specific issue.

In a larger sense, no one can be completely understood, nor can a person completely understand him- or herself. This is because people are tremendously complex,  composed of scores of major and minor roles and role components. (See my webpage articles on individuality, for examples, or factors in human development). I know it can’t be quantified, but to give some sense of the general proportions involved, I doubt that most people understand themselves more than 50%. Interpersonally, friends may understand the basic intention of a majority of one’s roles, but there are others that many friends don’t know about. Some friends know some facets but not others.

As for understanding oneself, I’m reminded of Robert Burns’ poetic maxim: “O would some Power the gift to give us / To see ourselves as others see us!”   (This was on spying a lowly louse on a fine lady’s bonnet in church, and the poem reminds me of those occasions when I was discovered to have left my fly open. Ah, me.)

So being a single word, “understanding” gives the impression that it is possible; or that a single correct understanding does exist. It denies the nature of interpretation, the complexity of viewpoint. But for words such as understanding, or freedom, or justice, or divinity, the complexity is such that it can never be known. Too many points of view, too many implicit biases.

As for feeling understood, that also tends to generalized: That is, when one feels understood by someone, there’s a tendency to expect to be understood about other things—but sometimes that won’t happen readily. Really, what happens is a partial “meeting of minds.” That is, even if she understands me about this category A aspect of myself, I don’t feel known or understood about that category B aspect. Indeed, perhaps I’ve never even told her about Category B or its various sub-aspects; or maybe I have never even admitted this Category B to myself! So as I say, understanding oneself, feeling understood by others, and being actually understood by others—these plus other permutations represent a fairly complex dynamic.

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