(Credit: “The Nut Gatherers” by Bouguereau)
My “fear of not being understood” is really a fear of being misunderstood. Surprisingly there’s a big difference! I have a longing to be “understood” but what I actually fear is being positively misunderstood. And the worst is when someone thinks they understand me or “have [me] all figured out” and in reality they have jumped to conclusions, assigned a label for me and a box in which they can contain me or cast me away. Possibly everyone does this to some extent in our genuine attempts to become acquainted; we look for what we know, and what we don’t, we explain to ourselves in terms of what’s familiar.
I very consciously and actively try to let my understanding of others be a blank book in which they write the chapters they choose to share with me. Not only do I hope to let them be the authors of my knowledge of them, I assume they are sharing only part of their story. It’s wrong for me to draw too many conclusions. I can’t claim to do this perfectly or 100% because I am human and as it’s a natural or instinctive way for humans to learn by comparison of what’s new to what’s familiar, I realize I am going a bit against the grain of what’s a natural way of functioning. However, I find it is much more fun and interesting to let people reveal themselves to me rather than to make assumptions and then try to force their round gifts of self into any square holes of stereotype I might have on hand.
So when I try to count the people who have done this for me, persons who have allowed me to reveal myself to them and I think have really understood me as well as anyone not in your own skin could possibly do, I find the list is shockingly small. In fact, I find I recognize gradients of being known. Which is really what one would expect; only God knows us through and through, totally, without buffer or distortion.
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
~ Psalm 139: 13-14a
When I consider how this “being understood” manifests itself to me in these relationships, I realize that they actually have acknowledged they don’t know me entirely, they are open to getting better acquainted with me, they recognize and honor that I am the author of my story or the expert of my personal experience, they value me for who I am, and (it tends to be true that) they love me as unconditionally as any human can. Given that I define this group of people in my life with such rarely fulfilled criteria, it’s no wonder my list of Those Who Understand Me is so small!
Considering all that, I recognize the relationships I have with each of those people are wondrous gift. Being “known” like that is extremely rare in this world. The other thing I realize is that as I mature, I find I don’t need an abundance of such benevolent intimacy. I am content to be mostly unknown with most people. The thing I have to work on is two-fold: First, don’t assume others should understand me. I am (as my dad sometimes said) “not your average bear”! Truth is, none of us are! But maybe some of us are less “average” than others? I don’t know. I choose to view each person as terra nova. At any rate, it’s up to me to reveal whatever I want understood by others. And another truth is: very often being “understood” is not a prerequisite to being accepted! I know many people who accept me even though they know they don’t understand me. That too is great gift!
So my fear of being misunderstood is now a recognition that it is my responsibility to communicate what I choose, to correct when necessary, and to accept that most people don’t really care how accurate they are in their perceptions of others, and that’s actually mostly okay. Society gets along pretty well without everyone understanding everyone else. I think the human family needs more empathy than it does actual understanding. In fact, it’s more often willingness to be empathetic that opens the door to understanding, than it is the other way around.
It’s so lovely how analyzing my fears dissolves their power!
“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
~ Lau Tzu
There are so many great quotes and scriptures (and by the way, all of Psalm 139 is a lovely and encouraging passage) about the wonder of being known but one of my favorite songs about this is “On A Clear Day” by Alan Jay Lerner:
On a clear day,
Rise and look around you,
And you’ll see who you are,
On a clear day,
How it will astound you,
That the glow of your being,
Outshines every star,
You’ll feel part of,
E’vry mountain, sea and shore,
And you can hear,
From far and near,
A world you never heard before,
And on a clear day,
On that clear day,
You can see forever
And ever more.