St. Francis of Assissi prayed that God the divine master grant that he “not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” The sentiment is a powerful one–nevermind that Francis didn’t actually write the prayer.
It’s hard not to be understood. Spend any time learning another language and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Our brain folds around new words, contorting those fizzling gray circuits to think in a new way. Thinking in a new way is what learning a language ultimately is, at least when we do it well. We’re not just translating our inner voice into foreign words. We’re reshaping our mind.
That reshaping can be exhausting, even painful–though also exhilarating when we finally grasp some tense or sense that had eluded us. At least when we set out to learn a new language, we know what we’re signing up for. We recognize from the get-go that we’re not going to be understood, and that we won’t understand others. I know from experience. I live in a bilingual household, which means lots of repeating and enunciating and the occasional (accidental) neologism, as in: I got it! You’re crispy clear!
But so too, there are times when we’re misunderstood because others distort our words or intentions. That’s painful because it strikes at something dear to our humanity: our ability to communicate. No doubt this is one reason the Ten Commandments instruct: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” False witness, along with any kind of lying or distortion, tears at our common truth and our personal sense of truth.
Being misunderstood can be the cross of leadership. To lead is so often to be ascribed motives that are not our own. People accuse or assume. Leaders bear misunderstanding for the sake of integrity. The right thing will seem like the wrong thing to those with stakes on the other side of an issue. Just look at the story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. He planned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem but faced doubts about his ability to complete the job, threats, and false accusations (Nehemiah 4:2, 4:11; 6:8). Several times Nehemiah prayed that God, at least, would recognize his true motives and work. “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5:19).
Perhaps knowing the pain of being misunderstood can prompt us to give the gift of understanding to others. This means practicing the art of listening, but it’s also about assuming the best of others, practicing generosity in how we hear their words. That’s not easy to do, and sometimes we will be disappointed. But Paul was on to something when he said that love “believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Generous listening is an act of love.
I’ve experienced the generosity of being listened to. Fresh out of college, I moved to the big city for graduate school. I didn’t know a soul. I was offered a great gift when a classmate–a young Jesuit studying for the priesthood–took the time to get to know me and hear my story. I wasn’t self-aware enough to know what I longed for, but I received his understanding like a cup of cool water.
In the end, to seek to understand another is to listen for the truth of what God has created in them. “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (Job 38:36). God alone. And so we’re listening for the echo of God’s voice.
Do you understand me?