A Note on Understanding

 “Unfortunately understanding doesn’t always connote sanction, conversion, or forgiveness.”

Betty Smith, Tomorrow Will be Better

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

I have an argument with my loved one and I explain my position. I suspect that they would understand me after my explanation, and I want to be understood so badly. But in fact what I want is not just to be understood, what I want is all the above: sanctioning my behaviours, converting to my way of thinking and acting, or forgiving my behaviours.

But that’s not understanding. And Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and other wonderful works, unpacks that so delicately by showing us each character’s point of view. We come to understand each character from their perspectives, how they see life, what they struggle with, and how they make meanings of their struggles. We might not like all the characters but the compassion that comes from providing this multiple perspective is so profound.

I only recently read A Tree, right before the pandemic. I was listening to Anne Lamott and she referenced the book, so I picked it up. I loved the book so much that I went on a ride reading Smith’s other books: Joy in the Morning, Tomorrow will be Better, Maggie-Now, and even a biography of hers.

What a wonderful writer is Betty Smith.

With beautiful reflection on the lives of others and herself, Smith creates delicious stories of love, loss, and trials, tribulations, and triumphs of immigrant families. What a spectacular work on Smith’s part to present her characters with such depth and compassion. When I read her books I think to myself ‘here is a woman who worked through her struggles with her own family, especially her mother, to be able to write such a compassionate and understanding stories’.

The above quote is from her book Tomorrow will be Better. It is a deliciously sad book with a powerful ending. In that scene, the protagonist is having a conversation with her husband about having children. She wants more and he doesn’t. They quarrel and he leaves the house. When he returns he explains his perspective to her, in the hopes that she would understand him:

“He explained his attitude quietly and logically and he begged her to understand and she did understand. Unfortunately understanding doesn’t always connote sanction, conversion, or forgiveness. She had an idea that whoever wrote something about ‘to understand all is to forgive all’ just didn’t know what he was talking about.”

I want to live my life like that: to understand and to be understood without the underlying desired outcome. This type of understanding offers a particular kind of freedom, a freedom from the expectations of what that understanding will lead to. And it is such a hard task to live this way. I take my inspiration from Margy Shannon and hope to practice a different type of understanding:  

An understanding without presumptions, judgment, or a desired outcome.

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