We Don’t Want to Understand

We love to talk about seeking understanding. But most of us choose ignorance instead.

Small wonder. Understanding is hard.

It’s much easier to judge poor single mothers, to talk about how their bad choices landed them where they are, than to speak to one, to try to understand why those choices may have seemed right to her at the time.

It’s much easier to talk about illegal immigrants, to call them criminals and freeloaders, than to try to discover why the guy in the work line has felt the need to cross the border again and again for the promise of menial labor and the risk of deportation.

It’s much easier to call the wealthiest 1% of our society a bunch of cheaters and tax-dodgers who take advantage of the rest of us than to speak to a wealthy business owner and discover what it took her to get where she is.

Because understanding takes work. To seek out people who aren’t like us, we have to go outside the patterns we follow every day. We have to go where they are, which in most cases isn’t where we habitually go. We have to engage in activities we don’t usually engage in.

Even more than that, we have to become vulnerable. In order to understand someone, we have to open ourselves to them. We have to trust them even as we seek their trust–because if we don’t take that step, if we don’t seek trust, our understanding will be the shallow kind that evaporates as soon as we go back to our own lives.

Worst of all, we have to accept the possibility that we might be wrong. We have to put aside the need we all share to feel like we know what’s going on. We have to be open to the near-certainty that what we think we know about somebody is at best incomplete, and at worst completely unfounded.

And really, when you’re trying to do your job well, when you’re trying to be a good parent, a good husband or wife, when you have duties and responsibilities and commitments to meet, who has time to seek understanding? Much easier to cling to our old ideas. They’re probably close, after all. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

Fair enough. But there are moments in all of our lives when we can choose either to judge or to seek understanding. There may be those at your church or school who make you uncomfortable, who you don’t seek to spend time around. Sit near them. In conversation, make an effort to listen more than you talk. Volunteer to help people who need more than they have. Pick up a guy from the work line, work him hard and pay him well, and try to treat him like a human instead of like an illegal.

You may discover the things you think you know aren’t as close to right as you think. You may discover more steps you feel need to be taken, and you will have to choose whether to take those steps.

Understanding is hard. It takes effort and requires risk.

But in the end, it’s the only way I know to move the world forward.

I've been a soldier, a dreamer, a working stiff, a leader. A husband, father, example (good and otherwise), and now a survivor. I write about courage, because courage is what enables us to accomplish the impossible. If you draw breath, I love you. If you love in whatever way seems best to you and want others to love in whatever way seems best to them, I am your ally. If you believe someone is less than you because they do not love the way you do, I oppose you. If you see someone as a threat to be abused or destroyed merely because they do not look like you, or love like you, or worship like you, I am your enemy. I am a joyful and courageous man. And I stand with you who love.