I’ll let you in on a little secret. We who carry with us the legacy of a troubled childhood sometimes talk about the people who don’t. You know, the ones who had fairly normal childhoods with just a sprinkling of trauma and have gone on to become well-adjusted adults without years of therapy or going on a spiritual quest in India or having a near-death experience.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think we attract and are attracted by people who have similar world views to our own. And we are also heavily influenced by the five people we spend the most time with (or three, or ten, but you get the idea). So I have a lot of investment in the idea of spending time with emotionally healthy people, including those who had pretty happy childhoods.
But I’ve noticed a theme in recent conversations about these people. Words like “boring” and “not very deep” tend to come up. And when I pushed a little harder, a friend said, “What I really want is someone who will understand. And people who are happy and healthy won’t be able to understand.”
We get so excited when we find someone who “understands,” and we look with eagerness for our commonalities. “Wow, you’re a Disneyland person? I’m a Disneyland person too!” or “Your favorite book is my favorite book!” or “We both know this obscure fact about this obscure interest!” And abracadabra, instant bonding. We do the same thing with tragedy. There is no time when people will be more likely to share stories of everyone they’ve known who has ever died than when you are grieving yourself.
But I question the whole idea of understanding. Can anyone else ever truly understand what it is to be me, and what it means to have my experiences? We can build up models of each other, sure, and keep adding details for ever-increasing accuracy, but even then we are not understanding so much as empathizing. We can use our imaginations to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but we can never truly know what those shoes feel like.
We see this in good writing. It’s why choosing the point of view character(s) is so critical. The story completely changes based on who is telling it, even if most of the events and even scenes are the same. I see this when I talk to my sister. We both lived through many of the same formative events, and yet today when we talk about it, it’s vividly clear that we had completely different experiences. The details we remember are different, and our impressions of each other from that time are often inaccurate. We think we understand, and yet sometimes that false impression has actually kept us farther apart.
Understanding is overrated. What I’m interested in and what I want for myself is empathy. And empathy, and the personal depth and wisdom that having empathy requires, can be given regardless of childhood experience. The whole point of empathy is the cognizance that you can’t completely understand, even if you’ve had similar experiences; that you aren’t the other person and the whole sum of past and present, personality and passions, fears and flaws that makes them who they are. And in spite of that, in spite of the impossibility of understanding, you’re willing to sit with them and listen to them and try to hold as much as them as possible in your mind so you can see who they are, even though it’s sometimes so hard to leave yourself out of that picture. And yet somehow, even though it sounds hard and complicated, many of us are surprisingly good at being empathetic.
I don’t understand you, not really. And you don’t understand me. We come from different places, and we live in different worlds. But we can still find a way to know each other.