Understanding. | rejoyce letters, vol. 3

Hi Friend, 

When I was in seventh grade I had an all-consuming crush on a boy with artfully-spiked brown hair who I'll call Mike. Mike and I had exchanged maybe fifteen words, but I had proof he knew my name. And if you think a boy knowing your name is not a foundation on which you can construct an elaborate fantasy reality in your mind, then you've likely never been a seventh-grade girl with a crush.

When I was not in Mike's presence, I was hardly alive. Other than the infinite things wrong with the previous statement, what was wrong to seventh-grade me was that we had but one of eight classes together (Home Economics). I spent the rest of the school day in nearly insufferable exile. 

So: my friend and I devised a plan. (I believe my friend also had a crush on Mike? Or fully supported mine? Maybe both. Middle school crushes were often, strangely, shared.)

We memorized Mike's schedule and, in the eight minutes between periods, we'd walk wildly out of our way to cross paths with Mike and THEN (this is where it goes from embarrassing to mortifying) we attempted to brush shoulders with him in the hallway. Like, physically. 

I don't fully get hormones, you guys, but we did this for weeks. Maybe months. 

What strikes me now is how little I understood Mike. 

I mean, I knew facts about him. But I am just now beginning to appreciate the vastness between knowing and understanding.

Things I knew about Mike: his schedule, his siblings' names, where he lived, his entire wardrobe (lots of Steelers gear), every word he spoke in Home Ec. Things I understood about Mike: nothing.

Then why my obsession?

In Thich Nhat Hanh's book How to Love he writes: 

"Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person."

After reading that, I was back rushing through a crowded locker-lined hallway, trying desperately to brush shoulders with a stranger and calling it "love."

Thankfully, after seventh grade, I became enlightened and approached all of my relationships, romantic and otherwise, from a place of compassionate understanding.


Yeah, right. The next decade of crushes was basically variations on this theme: throwing myself into the paths of boys I hardly understood, brushing various body parts in desperate attempts at finding a connection that could bring me out of exile and make me feel alive.

This entire approach is clearly very flawed, but today I'm focusing on one aspect: my lack of understanding (for these boys and for myself). 

Rampant misunderstanding extends beyond romance, of course. Politically, it feels like half of our country does not understand the other half at all. (True for both halves.) It's so easy to "know" things about someone and judge them; it's so difficult to truly understand them. 

Another example: Have you ever been eating dinner with your parents and they start telling a guest a story you've never heard before? And you're like: Who are you? 

In Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace [Recommend! All forthcoming Hanh quotes are from this book.] he writes: "We are not capable of understanding each other, and that is the main source of human suffering."

The Buddha said in order to understand, you have to be one with what you want to understand.

But how?

It might not be about knowledge. Hanh: "Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge...The Buddhist way of understanding is always letting go of our views and knowledge in order to transcend."

[This made me think of "the Fall" in Genesis, stemming from Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.]

I unearth misunderstandings in my life all the time, but I like to think I'm moving in the direction toward understanding. I've begun asking "off-script" questions to people I "know" and then (the hard part for me): truly listening to their answers. This has been eye (and heart) opening for me.

Maybe Rumi summarizes it best: 

"The soul has been given its own ears to hear things that the mind does not understand."

It's difficult to shed things we "know"—we're conditioned to cling to them. But could it be worth it? After all, Hanh says: "Understanding is the source of love." 

with Love and with Light,


p.s.  In my interpretation, the philosophical Chinese room thought experiment also addresses knowledge vs. understanding from a different angle (focusing on artificial intelligence).

p.p.s. Congrats to each one of you for having survived seventh grade. (: