“… 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 husband to his wife. What do we mean by asking this question? May I use two examples.
First scene. A foreign student comes to a host-family. It is quite a routine to give the students information about several issues: where a bus stop is, where the shops are, what time he or she has to come back, if he or she has got our phone number and so on. Finally it comes the critical question: do you understand? have you got my message? In this case “understanding” has more the quality of getting the “knowledge” of something.
Second scene. In a different context a person discloses her or his sorrow to a friend. During their talk one may say: “can you understand me?”; and the other “I understand you!”.
This situation has to do not only with catching the meaning of what they communicate to one other, it is much more complex for the speakers in fact are using the word “understand” on a more intimate level.
The first friend (“can you understand me?”) is sending an appeal for sympathy to the other; the second one (“I understand you”) delivers comfort, support, the feeling of being close to one other.
The element of knowledge is also included as in the previous circumstance, but we can experience here that the word “understanding” shows a dimension of empathy amid the two friends, that is going over the intellectual understanding of an information.
The two scenes described lead us to see two qualities of the process of understanding:
a) understanding as knowledge of something (which is more an activity of the intellect);
b) understanding as expression of empathy, that is more an activity of the soul.
“Understanding” can hence stretch from “grasp the meaning”, “getting informed”, “getting to know something” to a deeper level of the psychological world, opening a fascinating window on the core of this simple word.
“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.
Here is the point.
Understanding someone leads to love, compassion, tolerance, sympathy, acceptance. It will never lead to hate, disregard, intolerance, exclusion.
There are acquaintances who lived beside one other for years and never get an understanding of each other; there are friends or partners who will understand one other in one magic moment.
So, this is one more quality of “understanding”: understanding is not connected to the time nor to an intellectual knowledge of the other person, but to a secret channel that joins human souls at once, enlightens their vision and make each of them plunged into one other soul.
How do we get this magic point of understanding?
While exploring the meanings and etymology of the word “understanding” in English, I found this question from a Russian writer:
“To understand something means to be acquainted with it, to know it very well, know how it “ticks”. This is one of the basic words that has a direct “meaning” in mind.
However, if we “dissect” it, it seems like it means to stand under something. Isn’t knowing something would logically be called above-stand and not under-stand, since when you are under something, you are less informed about it then when you are above it.
This may seem senseless to you, but I am sure a native English speaker will get the idea of what I am trying to say. Why under, not above?”
This is a small riddle for etymologists! but there is something to think about.
The question recalled to my mind a wise motto of the native Americans that sounds approximately like this: “if you want to understand your brother, walk a mile in your brother’s shoes” [quote align=”left” color=”#4c87a1″]“if you want to understand your brother, walk a mile in your brother’s shoes”[/quote]
Here is the path.
To understand other human beings we need to live in their soul condition. And the mile we walk into our brother’s shoes will end to the point of understanding, that is love.
From “above”, we might achieve a better knowledge of events, phenomena, social dynamics. From “under” we will understand our brother and will love him.
The old English word “under-standan” did likely mean “standing in the midst of”, or also “between. among” that we may translate in modern words: “to be close to”.
“Under” is therefore pointing not at the darkness of the ignorance, but at a position of modesty, simplicity, compassion that enlightens the comprehension of the others.
“Under” is also expression of one more quality, that is the space between the words, the silence, for understanding often flows not only through the spoken language but also under the words, between words or right in the midst of silence:
“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)
At this point we arrive to the essence of “understanding” and need to be aware that the path that leads here is not linear but full of interferences that might mislead completely from the good understanding.