Understanding the Space Between Us

I’ve been thinking lately of two quotations regarding understanding. I’m not sure why, but more and more, as I think about the problems of human beings, I’m convinced a lot of it comes down to understanding – or misunderstanding.

The danger here, reader, is that I’m going to go into some predictable, didactic sermon on “building bridges” and how we can all get along if we just work harder at understanding each other. But I’m not going to. Because the truth about it, and what fascinates me on this topic, is the divergence of opinions regarding our hopes of reaching any kind of complete understanding of one another, or even whether it’s worth the attempt.

The first quote I was thinking of (in no particular order) is one often attributed to Spinoza, though others pin it on Evelyn Waugh and others refer to it as an old French proverb. It goes: “To understand all is to forgive all.” Now this is an attractive idea. I remember in my youth I came across it, and it seemed to explain so much of my experience. That is, I had had my share, as a boy traveling the world, of run-ins with some pretty surly characters. And I never really understood why they wanted to mix it up with me. I mean, why me and not someone else? What the hell did I ever do to you? Then there were all the external conflicts – the wars, racial problems, the generation gap with its cool mantra of “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Right down to family arguments. What is the source of this conflict, I would wonder, this mistrust and outright animosity toward others – really, I would wonder that. Because I dislike conflict and prefer cooperation, and I always have.

So, the quote told me, if I could work to understand what generates these conflicts, what the underlying pathologies might be, it would be possible to recast them in the light of that understanding. By way of that understanding, it might even be possible to discard, once and for all, the ill feelings that we almost invariably harbor against our transgressors, both real and perceived. To forgive – based on understanding the root motivations of the behavior of others. That would be something.

But the problem word is “forgive.” The idea is that we will benefit through forgiveness, where in fact if we were able to question these combatants directly (I know now), many would have no use for our forgiveness. The forgiveness would be akin to an insult – that anyone for whom they have contempt should be “forgiving” them would be an alien concept. It’s like the old joke:

“Hey, stupid.”

“You should apologize for that unfeeling remark.”

“OK – I’m sorry you’re stupid.”

In effect, people who are callous enough, or ignorant enough, to be callous and ignorant, probably aren’t going to be interested in your grandiose forgiveness of their ignorant callousness.

So – perhaps we can simply “understand,” setting aside the forgiveness for now, and be satisfied that we can improve our outlook and world view through this understanding. “To understand all is to understand all,” the saying might go. And at least that’s something. It’s closer, anyway, to how I’ve adopted that philosophy.

But it’s a monumental something, to take up that mantle of understanding, and possibly a Quixotic dream. Which brings me to my other quote, from favorite author Carol Shields, a novelist “concerned about the unknowability of other people.” When I read this line, for some reason, it was like being thrust into a room full of light after a lifetime of darkness. OK, maybe not that dramatic, but you get the idea. What she wrote (and reading her books would be the best way to get a real good handle on what she means) is this:

“It is inevitable that each of us will be misunderstood; this, it seems, is part of twentieth-century wisdom.”

So here is another kind of understanding, one at once a paradox and a truth that sears the brain – the idea that our most profound understanding of ourselves may be the knowledge that we are each of us entirely boxed into our internal versions of ourselves, a self we can never fully reveal, and that because of this we will never fully understand anyone else. Instead, we will “receive” the public versions of others, the persona they feel is suitable to present to the world. And they, the people we “know,” will all hold a part of themselves back, no matter how intimate the relationship, because there are dark corners of ourselves we simply cannot – or choose not to – reveal. It’s a concept she, and some other authors I have touched on recently, explores in depth in her novels, which might seem to have a comedic lightness on the surface but which inevitably return to this question again and again: can anyone truly know anyone else? And if we cannot, what does that say about the relationships we number our most intimate – about our friendships and families and our marriages?

I’ve known a lot of people. Some of them are treasure troves of secrets; others seem to be open books, willing for anyone to know the most private details of their lives. But that is no real comparison, because by definition the person we are seeing is the “public” version. It may be that the most untethered free spirit you know harbors a secret, other self for whom the free spirit is merely a protective guise. The most practical, sensible person you know may harbor secret dreams of moving to Tahiti and becoming a painter of nudes (I believe Gauguin was a banker or something before he up and split).

You just don’t know. Like that guy who believes he’s happily married, comes home to a note on the kitchen table. “I’ve taken my stuff and I’ve left. I’m never coming back.” You only know someone as far as they let you know them.

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