A recurring conversation:

– ..and that is the reason why I’m …
– Yes, I get it, but…
– No, you’re not letting me finish.
– But I know what you’re going to say!
– Can’t you just try to understand me?! I want you to understand!

In so many different ways, this is problematic.

I have noticed that somewhere along the lines, the meanings of “understanding” and “agreeing” blurred into one continuum. On the unconscious level, I think the “logic” works like this: you can understand me –> you can see my logic –> you can empathize –> you can see that there’s no other way –> you must agree with me.

If you think about your own conversations where the idea of understanding comes into play, you’ll see what I mean. Lately I have been ruminating on what “understanding” another person really means, not least because I have been reminded, berated, pleaded with and begged to offer understanding to a certain individual. The problem is that my understanding of the concept of “understanding” is radically different from his.

After my ruminations, I have only more questions. For example, can you understand someone and not agree with them? Would that merely mean that you aren’t fully understanding them? Can you understand or “know” someone better than they know themselves? And if so, what makes YOU the authority on the inside workings of another individual?

Maybe I should give an example to tether my scattered thoughts to. Say a friend of yours is an alcoholic. They steal, cheat, and lie in order to be able to sustain this habit, although they know it’s harmful and morally wrong. They have a conversation with you, in which they try to show you their side of things. It goes something like this:

– I was abused as a child. My father was an alcoholic, mother died when I was three. There was no stability in my life, only parties and drinking orgies that my father held at our house. We were constantly on the move, so even the relationships I did form were only transitory. I became depressed and suicidal. Drinking was the only coping mechanism I knew, so I turned to drink….
– Yes, but you can stop. You see that it’s getting you nowhere. It’s dangerous and it’s wrong to steal or lie for a drink..
– But don’t you see, this is all that I know…
– I understand, but still..
– No, if you really understood, then there wouldn’t be a “but still”…

In other words, if you can fully submerge yourself into the logic of your fellow speaker, once you can think the way he is thinking, then you not only understand him, but empathize, agree, and worse – like him, see no way out. This seems to be the ruling view of what it means to understand someone. And it includes not only the ability to see the logic and rationale behind an action or behavior, but to have full, complete background knowledge (informational and existential) which leads to the decisions governing a person’s actions. My question is: can you really understand a person, and disagree?

Another very interesting thing about knowing yourself. A friend of mine once mentioned that nobody can know a person better than they know themselves, and if you think you see something in a person, and that person doesn’t agree, then you’re wrong. In other words: the identity of a person is that, which the person chooses to believe about him or her self. And if you see something in them that they don’t, it is your moral obligation to convince them of the presence of this trait, or accept the fact that it’s not really there. This was a concept that I could not wrap my mind around. What if you see sloth in a person who claims (and fully believes) that it’s depression? Or, what if you see a desperate grief in what the person tries to show as brazen indifference? Can you really show them that they are delusional or in denial? Do you owe it to them (as my friend suggested)? Or is it better to allow this self-preserving mechanism to continue working?

On the other hand: what gives you the authority to presume that you know someone better than they know themselves?

Which brings me back to the initial conversation, or to many similar conversation which were abruptly brought to an end when, driven to tears of exasperation after the incessant demanding for being understood, I finally exclaimed, “I understand what you are saying! But I don’t accept it.” To my surprise, the response was remarkably calm, “Well, there you said it. Now I understand.”