Who knows when each of us first learns that sensation—the sensation of being misunderstood. My hunch is that it comes early on in our lives, maybe even before our brains are making narrative memory, maybe even before we have begun to understand much of anything about ourselves or the world. But it doesn’t take much for the seed to be planted in us that the world won’t always understand us.
My mom has long told me a story about me as a frustrated toddler trying to be understood. I was sitting in my high chair, the story goes, and I started saying “puppy touw.” My mom was not sure what I wanted, but I became more and more adamant, saying “puppy touw” over and over again.
She brought the dog over thinking I might mean I wanted the dog. She showed me all kinds of toys and nearby objects in an effort to understand and respond to my increasingly urgent request. I became more and more frustrated, kicking the high chair, moving my body in the chair, saying “puppy touw” louder and louder through tears.
Finally by some stroke of maternal genius my mom offered me a paper towel, and I immediately calmed down and wiped up a small spill on my high chair tray. “Puppy touw” was toddler speak for “paper towel.”
What a gift to have someone willing to hang in there with the growing tension, agitation, and frustration until she understood. What a gift that I didn’t give up on being understood.
There are lots of other ways this exchange could have gone. My mom could have gotten angry and taken all sorts of steps to try and correct my behavior. From punishment to shaming to ignoring me, she could have made a choice not to expend the energy it takes to really listen to someone you don’t understand.
I could have given up. I could have learned then that there is no point in trying to be understood, that no one really cares to know what it is I need.
Understanding is like an endurance sport. If you want to truly get good at it, you have to continually leave your comfort zone and last longer at it than you thought you could. You have to push through pain and fatigue. You have to have inner resources to draw on to help you keep going when you want to quit.
Being misunderstood may be one of the most profound human afflictions of our time. It trivializes our relationships. Triviality is a form of deprivation—a recipe for a slow erosion of trust and hope.
How often do we actually spend our time engaging in the strenuous work of understanding or trying to be understood? One’s answer to this question is loaded with context and necessitates a power analysis.
Those with more formal power and social capital can decide not to bother with understanding those who challenge their way of seeing things. Those with formal power and social capital can sequester themselves from experiences and conversations that truly stretch the relational muscles of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Those with formal power and social capital can surround themselves with people who make them feel like they don’t even need to be understood, because everyone thinks and feels like they do.
Those who do not have formal power, those whose social capital is diminished or demeaned because of their identity, their social location, or other aspects of who they are in the world, do not often have the same capacity for avoidance. In other words they are thrust into the rough and tumble world of being misunderstood every day. Just walking down the street can be filled with tension, agitation, and frustration. They do not have the ability to sequester themselves in a world that simply reinforces their perspective. They are constantly reminded that there are powerful forces at work that do not feel compelled to understand them.
On either end of the continuum of formal power and social capital, missing opportunities to understand and be understood are draining us of something that we need to truly be alive. I’m not talking about fights on Facebook or Twitter, I am talking about substantive encounters between human beings who have enough regard for each other that they don’t give up on the conversation.
To be able to engage in those kinds of conversations, we have to be able to trust a moment, trust the space enough to stay present. I’ll admit, that long after my mom taught me that understanding is possible if you just stick with the conversation, I learned the opposite lesson many times over.
There are conversations that I am not willing to stick around for—with people who indicate that they come with ill will or the intention to harm. The healing opportunity in those situations can be that I have gotten better at taking care of myself and knowing when I need to say no.
What I am hoping for is a rekindling of our deep need to be understood and of our capacity to do the hard work of understanding. What’s at stake is really our shared humanity.
Like many of you, I am tired of carrying the weight of misunderstanding. I am tired of carrying the weight of the most powerful in the world writing off the pain of the world. It is the weight of generations of refusals to understand. It is the weight of centuries of broken trust eating away at our capacity to hang in there with each other.
The cultural of misunderstanding has many expressions these days. The most recent is Kobe Bryant’s tragic death being publicly mourned and that conversation being hard for survivors of sexual assault. Raw grief is on display in many different expressions. Also on display is the struggle we have to be gentle with each other or to trust each other with our most painful emotions.
And then there is the impeachment trial that spins out two totally different views of reality and power. Seeing people entrusted with formal power seemingly unwilling to do the hard work of being trustworthy erodes collective trust and our willingness to seek understanding. Or how about Mary Louise Kelley’s interview with Mike Pompeo? It was a public display of someone with formal power refusing to engage in an honest and difficult conversation aimed at understanding an issue that is impacting our whole country. And the predictable reactions from his supporters further diminish the social fabric of our country. You can probably list fifteen more examples where these come from.
What happens to a culture that hasn’t cultivated the trust that the work of understanding requires? That deficit model around understanding was generated a long time ago in white capitalist patriarchy. It is bewildering to feel its foothold go deeper and deeper.
How are you feeling right now?
How does the stress of misunderstanding and the unwillingness to understand impact you? What does it feel like to miss understanding?
It all brings up a lot in me. I feel it in my chest. It feels hard to breathe. I feel it in my gut. It feels like something is not right. I feel it in my legs. They feel heavy and tired from carrying things. I feel it in my jaw. I try to relax and it feels reluctant to open all the way.
My body is re-membering so many things: the annihilating feelings of being dismissed and not believed, the demoralizing realization that the bullies are in charge, the stress and inflammation of being told your viewpoint doesn’t matter or isn’t important.
And I am trying to breathe through those painful feelings and stay present in this world that is my home. And it helps me remember that a long time ago, somebody who was probably feeling a lot of stress herself, hung in there with my raw feelings when it was almost impossible for her to understand me. I want to remember what it felt like when she finally heard me. I want to re-member the feeling of my body relaxed in my surroundings and the deep connection of being understood.
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com