There have been several TV programmes recently that have prompted me to think about understanding. What they have had in common is the theme of really getting to know others and how they think, work, live, and the result of that, which is inevitably a greater sympathy and understanding of their world and the way it works or doesn’t for them.
We talk about understanding something as if it is an intellectual exercise, but the word originally means to stand in their place, and experience it. True understanding will expand our awareness of the possibilities in the world, and will touch us emotionally as well as intellectually.
There have been lovely examples of this in the series called ‘The Secret Millionaire’. Every one of the people who have been giving away money in this series has gone to live in the community for a while, experiencing first-hand the way the community works and the way people live their lives there. And every one has had a change of heart, an emotional experience, a change of attitude – they have also all been moved to tears and seen their experience as a gain for themselves, and not just for those to whom they have given money.
Most of the time, we live in our heads, not because that is natural to us, but because that is what we have learnt to do. As small children, we cannot help but react from our hearts first, but we are good learners, and we soon realise that adults don’t do that. As children, we are also fascinated by other people’s worlds, yet we learn to judge them from our own perspective, and close down to the possibility of learning from them and truly understanding them.
So I have a suggestion: How about finding people whom we have a judgement about and seeing if we can really understand them. These could be our children, our parents, our work colleagues, or a category of people we don’t know at all.
All it requires is being prepared to spend time asking people to talk about their world, and listening with curiosity rather than judgement. Then to really imagine what it would be like to live in that world, and how you would feel if that were your world. For example, many years ago, I was prompted by one of my teachers to ask people begging on the street to tell me their story. It only took a few of those stories to make me realise that it could have happened to me, and that I would probably be an alcoholic or drug addict if it had. It took away my judgement of them, and made me very grateful for my own good fortune in having friends and family that supported me in tough times in my life.
If all of us were just to increase our understanding a little, I think we would change the way the world works!