“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love” (Francis of Assisi).
TO “UNDERSTAND” MIGHT MEAN SEVERAL THINGS. For our meditation today, let’s select three of the more important definitions. First, understanding indicates that we grasp the meaning or significance of something. (I “understand” English grammar.) Second, it indicates that we know something thoroughly by close contact or long experience. (I “understand” my best friend.) And third, it indicates that we comprehend the meaning intended by another person. (I “understand” your objection to the plan.) All three of these kinds of understanding are valuable. They are good goals to strive for.
The third kind of understanding is especially valuable, and we need to spend more time trying to gain it. In our communications, we don’t listen very carefully, we don’t ask clarifying questions, and then we walk away assuming we have gotten what the other person was saying. Many times, however, we’ve missed the point. All of us want to be understood when we’re doing the talking, but not many of us are as concerned as we should be about understanding others. So Francis of Assisi’s prayer is appropriate: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood as to understand.”
Understanding others is not easy. As with academic subjects, we must “study” those who communicate with us. “It is profound philosophy to sound the depths of feeling and distinguish traits of character. Men must be studied as deeply as books” (Baltasar Gracián). But the effort is well worth making. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said, “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
The important thing is to be growing in our understanding. We will never understand everything about the world, but what understandings we do gain should be enjoyed. And since almost every understanding corrects some previous misunderstanding, growth in our understanding requires humility. Indeed, the prime difference between the wise man and the fool is that the wise man is correctable.
“Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes” (George Soros).