“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
– William Blake
It is a hard time to speak about understanding. It is hard in this time to sing with John Lennon “imagine all the people sharing all the world”.
It seems now that we don’t want to understand each other. We don’t bother to imagine a future. I’m not sure if we pay enough attention to the cry of frightened people who want to hear the sound of music, not explosions; who want to hear the sound of silence, not the stealth strike of missiles…
Why is this happening?
“The understanding between human beings is a fundamental tool to remove walls and prejudices and is potentially a means of tolerance and peace”: this what I wrote in my educational prospectus for the beginning of AEL in 2007.
Are those words outdated… Are they?
On the contrary.
Helping our children and youngsters understand one another is still a very needed stance!
Helping them achieve peace and tolerance through understanding is a vital commitment: now more than ever!
So, this is why I dare speak about “understanding” today.
Understanding is not unilateral
“… Do you understand?”
How many times do we hear this question? or do we say it?
A teacher to a pupil, a parent to a child, a wife to her husband…
When one of our international student arrives to the host-family, they provide information about several points: where a bus stop is, where the shops are… and so on. Finally it comes the question: do you understand?
Complete different is a similar question in a different context. Imagine a person disclosing joy or sorrow to a friend. They might be sharing personal circumstances, perhaps emotions or family issues. Or maybe work conditions and social connections. During their talk one may say: “can you understand me?”; and the other “I understand you!”.
Cognitive, emotional, compassionate understanding
In the first scene understanding is essentially related to catching the meaning of information given.
In the second case understanding implies a more complex process as the speakers indeed are using the word “understand” on a broader and deeper level.
The element of knowledge is present in both circumstances, but we can experience in the latter that the word “understanding” embraces a dimension of empathy amid the two friends, that goes well over the cognitive understanding of any information given and glides into compassion.
“Understanding” can hence stretch from “grasp the meaning”, “getting informed”, “getting to know something” to a deeper level of embracing another person’s psychological world: this possibility opens a fascinating window on the core of “understanding”.
The magic of understanding
“If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love”
John Steinbeck directly relates the understanding of another human being to love. And here is the central point.
There are acquaintances who lived beside one another for years and never get an understanding of each other.
There are friends or partners or (romantic?) encounters who will understand one another in one magic moment.
Such examples highlight that “understanding” is not simply a cognitive process, but a secret channel connecting at once mind and heart of human beings: a bridge that may enlighten or inspire their reciprocal visions.
How do we get to this magical point of understanding?
Native American wisdom
A native American motto sounds approximately like this:
“if you want to understand your brother, walk a mile in your brother’s shoes”.
Here is the path. To understand another human being we need to live in their life condition. The mile we walk into our brother’s shoes will lead to understanding. And understanding leads to nothing else than love.
If we section the world “understanding” -perhaps, on a non-scientific ground-, we would expect that “grasping a meaning”, achieving a better knowledge of events and phenomena, or even becoming “acquainted with someone” comes from “above”, not from “under”…
The native American wisdom tells us that it is actually from “under” that we will understand our brother: walking in his shoes we will let us love him.
A significant etymology
The old English word “under-standan” echoes the same wisdom of the Native Americans. “Understandan” likely meant “standing in the midst of”, or also “between, among” that we may translate in modern words: “to be close to”.
If so, “under” is well pointing at a position of modesty, simplicity, compassion that enlightens the comprehension, embracement, inclusion of the other person.
“Under” is also expression of a quality that often does not emerge through the spoken language but under the words, between words or right in the midst of silence.
We can see a beautiful example of the difference between “under-standing” and “above-standing” in the fairy tale “The Water of Life” (Brothers Grimm) when the three sons of the king meet the ugly little man one by one.
Is the ugly little man just the fantasy of a fairy tale? Believe it or not, that is real life, real daily life that still happens nowadays amid common people…
The understanding of silences
“One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom)
The path to understanding -whether it is about grasping meanings or embracing the heart of another person or being capable to listen to words and silences in between- is not a linear one.
It’s a bumpy path, full of ups and downs, moving forwards and backwards….
We need to be aware of obstacles or interferences that may divert us from getting to understand one another.
Obstacles to understanding
Those obstacle might affect friendships, social connections or -on a larger scale- the social dynamics of a community.
Being aware of those risks provides the strength and power to overtake them or to reduce their poison consequences in any social context.
But this is a topic for another day as it is time for me to close this theme.
What has this subject to do with a language project like AEL?
AEL was founded to improve the “understanding” of English not only in the meaning of getting a better knowledge of the English language, but getting an understanding of the English culture and -more genrally- of other people, I daresay.
“Under-standing” in AEL is a process connecting our students, our teachers, our host families: “understanding” in the wider meaning is at the core of our AEL project.
We constantly review our work and can see weak points, mistakes, areas for improvements, but I can assure that we take care of the ethics as much as the practicalities that of our ethics have to be the reflection.
Sometimes we do better, sometimes less, but this is the way we move on: understanding ourselves, understanding the others.
It seems important to me to share the ground of our project at the start of a new stage of development. And connect those people who feel on the same direction.