The following is an abridged version of an editorial I wrote for American Athenaeum Magazine’s “The Understanders” issue in Winter 2012.
The summer before last, a high school friend of my husband, who was also becoming a friend of mine, asked me one night, out of the blue, “How are you so nice to people?” I was surprised by the question and didn’t really know how to answer it, but I managed to say, “Well, I think I understand people.” He responded with a laugh and said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t understand people at all.” It was such a casual, in-passing kind of conversation that I would have forgotten it, except that that was the last night I ever saw him, and it was one of the last things he ever said to me. A little more than a month later, he committed suicide.
I realize this is a macabre, intimate story to share. I don’t mean to be confessional, and I certainly don’t mean to be macabre. But I think that memory is important here because it highlights a significant but not often enough considered aspect of the theme of this issue: the fundamental value of understanding for one’s own salvation.
When we speak of compassion and understanding, we often think of it as a kind of votive offering, a sacrifice, something we give of ourselves to others. And there’s truth in that. True understanding is deconstructive. It requires us to break down those presumptions and hard beliefs that act as walls to divide us from other people– especially those people whom we consider our enemies — and to reconsider our world and the events that happen within it from a perspective beyond ourselves. Doing so requires humility in accepting that our perceptions of the world and our understanding even of ourselves is subjective; it also requires a nimble imagination to go beyond our particular experiences and modes of thinking. Understanding is challenging and too often taken for granted.
Even so, understanding doesn’t have to be perfect to have its effect. Often, simply acknowledging that another person has a completely different frame of reference that we may never fully comprehend is enough to humble us, to make us reconsider (or consider for the first time) our sense of our own righteousness. What I meant when I told my friend that I think I understand people was that I understand, however imperfectly, that every person I meet has known pain and that pain is very often the cause of the hurtful, sometimes truly terrible things people do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t often feel frustrated — even enraged — by others’ actions and words, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes hurt other people. But I do carry with me that glimpse of wisdom in knowing that there is a common thread that binds us all together and that this thread is, macabre as it sounds, pain. This unifying thread reminds me to be kind as often as I can, in whatever small or great ways I find. It also reminds me to forgive and move past the pain I experience. Understanding our common humanity — our sensitivity and frailty — makes us able to use that pain to heal rather than as a weapon.
As I’ve said, healing ourselves through understanding is inherently a part of that forward movement. This is something that my friend unfortunately never realized. To him, his pain was unique and unbearable. He didn’t understand that others had felt similar pain before, that it was something we keep mostly hidden, as he had done. When we can’t perceive the suffering of others, we are left only with ourselves and our own heavy pain. We are engulfed by it, and it makes us feel supremely, desperately lonely.
Because many of us don’t often share our pains with each other face-to-face — perhaps we’re ashamed to; maybe others discourage it, finding it uncomfortable or even frightening; or perhaps the opportunity never really comes up — it is often through art that we learn to understand and find understanding in others. James Baldwin wrote in The Price of the Ticket: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Reading opens us up to a larger community — however remote in space and time — that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone. Reading makes it possible for us to experience the pain of others, helps us begin to understand experiences that may be far removed from our own and otherwise inaccessible to us, and to find the common threads between our own and others’ stories. This connection through words is what Baldwin relished. …
It is a gift to ourselves to understand — to see the humanity in others, to see ourselves in them and, reflexively, them in ourselves. This is how enemies cease to be enemies, how strangers grow close and become part of a growing sense of a human family. It allows us not only to become kinder to others but also to ourselves. Understanding makes it possible for us to persist in spite of our struggles, in spite of our pain, because we know that others have been before where we are now.
I hope that the stories and poetry in this issue help us all to do just that: to be challenged, to be seized and opened wide, to take in alien thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to be made freshly vulnerable to pain, and therefore to be transformed, made greater and more understanding, and to be healed. Because we can be healed by understanding, in recognizing and accepting the pain that lies in others and in learning to identify and love the humanity revealed by that pain. Through that, we can be re-made universal and whole.
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