In our time of sharp political divisions, I’ve heard this frequent comment from people on both sides of the divide and I’ve even voiced it myself: “I just don’t understand. How could they … believe that … do that … not see what seems so obvious? I just don’t understand them.” Perhaps our failure to understand each other and our erroneous projections have played a major role in our divisions.
The distinguished surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin Nuland once declared “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood. And out of that comes every form of love.”
In Saint Francis’ well known prayer, he voices this very need: “O Divine Master, grant that I may seek not so much…to be understood, as to understand.”
To understand ourselves, let alone one another, even partially, is no small undertaking. I’m usually suspicious of someone who claims to “understand me perfectly.” In 1 Corinthians 13, even Paul seems to struggle with the relationship between love and understanding: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” At its best, our human understanding is incomplete and we must humbly leave full understanding to our Creator.
This inability to fully understand, however, should not keep us from making the attempt to learn what we can about each other and ourselves. It involves the courage and willingness to talk and listen to each other. Sometimes questions may help to shed light on what is unclear. And a seeking, tentative tone helps to provide a safe place to search for common ground.
While complete understanding may be impossible, a good faith attempt can be the beginning of building a bridge across our differences. The attempt may be imperfect and partial, but a little understanding sometimes goes a long way.
In the movie version of Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It,” the story is told of a fly-fishing Presbyterian minister and his family in Montana. Norman, the youngest son, was level-headed and responsible. But his older brother, Paul, was reckless and wild. As a result, Paul suffered a tragic death at the hands of his lawless cronies.
In one of his last sermons, the aged, broken hearted father reflected on his son’s wildlife and murder: “Each one of us here, at one time or another in our lives, have looked upon a loved one who is in need and asked the same question, ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’
“It’s true, we can seldom help those nearest us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it’s those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love them completely without complete understanding.”
Beyond loving feelings, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is essentially the choice of actions characterized by patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, truth, trust, hope, and perseverance. That kind of love offers us the best path toward understanding each other.
Lord, help us to strive to better understand each other. But most of all, help us to love one another as You have loved us. Amen.
John Paul Carter is a P regular contributor to the Weatherford Democrat.