Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Innocent Misunderstandings

Marriage, plus two thought-provoking blog posts thoroughly unrelated to each other, have me thinking about what it means to mis/understand, especially: When is it innocent?

A couple of nights ago, I started what seemed to me to be an innocent and quick discussion.

"We need to get this Air Conditioning thing figured out," I said. What did I mean by that? At first I truly thought I meant "we," but later, Dylan pointed out that I actually meant "you." So the innocent misunderstanding (or not so innocent?) started within myself, as some kind of crossed wires or self-deception.

Of course, I don't have to tell anyone who's been in a long-term relationship what happens next. All kinds of underlying goop, crap that's been free-floating, and our relationship is (luckily) free of a lot of this kind of stuff. 

Basically, it came down to the burden of having a house, which has gotten to us both lately - financially as well as physically.

Or did it come down to the house?
We also headed into the territory of roles and communication, expectations and obligations. What do I really mean when I say "we" for instance. Very good question. In my post coming back from Sutrayana Seminary, I pointed out that I wanted to continue to work on not always putting myself first, even in the most subtle ways.

One of the blog posts I mention above only makes slight reference to this, but it's important, as Cybergabi talks about it being misunderstood in a very personal way, after referencing this quote:
Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is interesting to me about this quote is the idea that greatness is something that can go misunderstood but misunderstandings aren't really linked to greatness. These are two words, very close to each other, but with very different connotations. Misunderstood, as this quote demonstrates, has kind of an underdog feeling to it - it's a good thing, if you don't mind being an iconoclast. However, misunderstanding(s) are generally seen in a negative light, as I am seeing them here.

Then there is the ultimate misunderstanding (from Buddhist Perspective):
(Buddha) taught that there is a kind of innocent misunderstanding that we all share, something that can be turned around, corrected, and seen through, as if we were in a dark room and someone showed us where the light switch was. It isn’t a sin that we are in a dark room. It’s just an innocent situation, but how fortunate that someone shows us where the light switch is. It brightens up our life considerably. We can start to read books, to see one another’s faces, to discover the colors of the walls, to enjoy the little animals that creep in and out of the room. - Pema Chodron

Bindu Wiles quoted this in her blog last week.

Finally, there is the Vajrayana teaching that within confusion is wisdom - they are the same.
If that's not confusing, I don't know what is. As a "non-Buddhist" friend said to me when I told her that, "That's way too advanced for me. I'm just trying to notice my breath."

There are no answers here. I am mostly curious about this topic, and want to keep exploring it. What, after all, does it mean to understand? We use it to say that we comprehend data, information. But when it comes to emotions or actual reality, for instance, this word underestimates the task at hand. Increasingly I think understanding can't be expressed in words (ironic state for a writer), and yet, we can certainly point in the overall direction. Ditto with understanding our own selves.

Please join the discussion - here and elsewhere.


  1. I think Emerson flirted with the idea that misunderstanding is equal with greatness. In fact, I've met quite a few of artists who do: If you don't understand their work, it's a) proof of their greatness and b) your fault, not theirs or the fault of their work. While I don't necessarily agree with this notion, I see its merit: It's helpful for making you depend less on recognition from the outside, which is something most artists crave, but few really attain. It can help keep your self-confidence up, even if you don't mobilize the cheering crowds with your work. It's a way to hide your insecurity, even if only behind a mask of arrogance.

    But who can truthfully say they understand someone else when it comes up to feelings or experiences? Can't we all just extrapolate from our own feelings, our own experiences, and our own personality, and thus never really understand each other? Can you explain toothache to someone who never had a toothache? Can you explain an orgasm to someone who never had one, or can I explain my orgasm to you in a way that you will understand it, even though yours might be entirely different from mine - and even though my orgasms may have a lot of variance too? Can you really, truly understand how I must have felt when my father ran away when I was five, and can I ever truly understand how you must have felt when your father died when you were 12 (or however old you were then)?

    Understanding (except for, maybe, mathematical formula or physical laws) is something which can always only be an approximation. Which doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. But even if we think we understand each other, we might just not. Which, for me, is both a frightening and relieving thought.

  2. Ah, I like your pointing out the dark side of the misunderstood greatness idea. I was thinking of it in the "positive" - sometimes things we *can't* quite understand are the truth, and truly profound. However, yes, ego can manipulate that. In an essay I am writing right now on editing and meditation, I quote how I always tell my middle school creative writing students that "confusion isn't the same thing as mystery in your story."

    Last paragraph of your comment - for the win. Thank you.