Thursday, March 4, 2010



In ancient China, Confucius allegedly said: "Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand." I had never heard this proverb before. It captivated me because it encapsulates many of my views about sense, speech, memory, experience and empathy. All these things relate to each other. And they all aim for one thing: Understanding.

What does it take to understand another person? Is it enough to hear a person describe problems with words? How about observing something firsthand? What is the most effective way to find understanding and empathy?

I have often written that we humans are subjective creatures. We know only what we sense. Unfortunately, we must also depend on language because our senses have a limited range. After all, we only feel certain about something when we perceive it directly. We would prefer to see something with our own eyes rather than hear about it in words from someone who saw it. We want to understand our surroundings and the people in our lives. And the only pathway to understanding is sense.

But it is a troubled pathway. For what can we really know, let alone understand? Knowledge is not the same as understanding. Knowledge is more banal than understanding. Knowledge means that we merely manifest a subjective belief that something is true because we perceived it. Yet understanding is more subtle. Understanding means that we not only know things, but we intuitively arrange our knowledge to tell a larger story. Knowledge is about details. Understanding is about narrative. Knowledge is just an actor. Understanding is the whole play. And we don't feel truly fulfilled until we really understand something: What good are isolated facts unless they tell us something more significant?

Confucius recognized that human sense opens the door to both knowledge and understanding. Yet he also recognized that there is a hierarchy in human sense. He says: "Tell me and I will forget," implying that hearing is a weak sense. How right he is. How often do we hear language and immediately forget what we just heard? It is difficult to glean knowledge from language, let alone understanding. It is incredibly easy to forget words. After all, words are a poor substitute for actual perception. But in many cases they are all we have to reconstruct our perceptions.

Sight is better than hearing. Confucius confirms this when he says: "Show me and I may remember." Here, he does not say he "will forget." If he perceives something visually, he says he "may remember" it. Again, Confucius is right. Sight links intimately to memory. Our eyes leave "visual impressions" on our minds long after images leave our present view. When we reminisce, we engage our "mind's eye." We attempt to re-see images that have long since disappeared from sight. We may not precisely remember what we see; indeed, with time, memory weakens. So in that way, Confucius correctly points out that we only "may" remember something after we see it.

And we see all the time. It is simply impossible to recall every single thing we visually perceive every day. Our memory works best only after we see something worth remembering, namely, something exciting, unusual, captivating or appealing. To a large extent, our own subjective desires color what we remember. If we are infatuated with someone, we remember how they look with great detail. We hang on their words and even remember what they say. Yet those subjective desires obscure other details. We don't remember many things we see because we are distracted with our love interest. We are not paying attention; our emotions cloud our perceptions. Thus, while sight may be a better way to acquire knowledge than hearing, we will never remember everything we see. There is just too much going on. We cannot know everything because our senses are imperfect.

But Confucius does not end his proverb with knowledge. He goes beyond. He ends with "understanding:" "Involve me and I will understand." Understanding is the ultimate goal; the proverb builds up to it. He does not equivocate here, either. He says: "I will understand."

What is going on here? And why is understanding better than knowledge?

Anyone can know facts. You must merely have functioning sensory organs to know whether something is hot, cold, smelly, coarse, green or blue. Some facts require complex sensory deductions and inferences, but deductions and inferences are just mechanical mental conclusions. Anyone with rudimentary reasoning power can infer one fact from another.

But understanding is more transcendent than that. Understanding combines knowledge with experience and intuition. It is one thing to know whether another person is sick, obligated, depressed or happy. It is quite another to understand a person who experiences those circumstances. Understanding requires a person not only to listen, observe and infer facts about another. It also requires him to put that knowledge in the light of his own experience and honestly try to feel what the other person feels. That is no easy endeavor. It takes time to assemble experience. That is why we tell young people: "When you're older, you'll understand." After all, how can you understand a complicated emotional problem if you've never experienced the emotions that make it a problem in the first place? If you do not have experience, you cannot truly understand. You can know, but you cannot understand.

Confucius was right to extol understanding as the "higher result" of knowledge. Why do we learn? Simple: So that we can understand. And why do we want to understand? Because understanding enlightens us. It makes the world more comprehensible. Understanding equips us to help others. Understanding counteracts prejudice and shortsightedness. Violence springs from misunderstanding and ignorance. It is hard to go to war with someone if you actually understand them.

Yet the fact that human beings constantly make war on each other bespeaks a sad truth: Understanding is not common. It is hard enough to acquire reliable knowledge through hearing and sight, let alone to understand larger implications about life. Most people never even acquire the knowledge they need to understand others. Understanding is impossible without knowledge. And only a patient person takes the time to obtain the knowledge needed to find understanding.

Who has time for that in our society? Who has time to listen? And most importantly, who has time to get involved with others in order to understand them? Confucius' proverb said that involvement results in understanding. That means living with others and experiencing their lives first hand. That means living with their problems, too. Involvement is not just a pervasive sensory journey; it also is an emotional one. When you involve yourself in another person's life, you eat, drink, sleep and breathe their problems. You sense what they sense. You obtain knowledge at an astronomical rate. And because you combine your experience with theirs, you necessarily will understand them. Once you understand them, you can empathize and comfort. Or you can turn away. In either event, you are enlightened. You are no longer ignorant.

But that takes a very long time. It takes a lot of energy. To achieve understanding, then, a person must not only have experience and knowledge. He must also be patient enough to involve himself in others' lives in a compassionate way.

Sadly, neither patience nor understanding are highly prized virtues in modern American society. Yet people yearn to be understood. In most cases, they must pay others to understand them. After all, time is money in the United States. No one has time to sit down and listen to another person's deepest thoughts, let alone get involved in their lives in a meaningful way. This is one reason why people are desperately unhappy in this country. They want to be understood, but no one has the time, patience or intellectual capacity to "learn" their woes. This leaves many people feeling isolated and forgotten. Even married couples never take the time to really understand each other.

I venture that understanding offers its own rewards. It is satisfying to understand others and to understand yourself. True, it takes time, learning and effort. But it feels so good to know another person understands you. By the same token, it feels good to give back by understanding others. It is an enlightened and compassionate way to live. Despite all the impulsions to the contrary, sometimes it is good to be patient in our society.


MaxThrust said...

There are sayings which are true, but seem mere platitudes to those who cannot internalize them. For someone waiting on a loved on in the hospital, they know they should not worry, because worrying does nothing. Telling them 'don't worry, just wait patiently' rarely works. They worry all the same and make themselves miserable by doing so.

Understanding others requires a degree of empathy, and this is more or less developed in children according to Alfred Adler.

Actually involving myself for a time in your life in Chicago did help me understand a bit of what goes on. Had that not happened, words or just seeing it 1 day would not do it justice. A blessing in disguise.

Understanding doesn't necessarily stop war. I can understand the other wants to kill me, it doesn't stop it. Mutual understanding may not stop it either, we understand we want to kill each other. There may be another step to take, that towards wisdom.

I can understand drinking is bad for me, yet still drink. Or if I still drink, does that mean I don't truly understand? Perhaps there is a line between understanding and wisdom which you can analyze sometime.

Are wisdom and understanding practically the same? Would wisdom be application of understanding? Or is understanding application of knowledge?

How to take knowledge and efficiently turn it into understanding and wisdom is very tricky. Psychologists and philosophers have debated this for a long time.

A quote from Erich Fromm: Insight separated from practice remains ineffective.

angelshair said...

You really have something magical with the words!
When you write about a subject, it takes another (deep) dimension. I really love this post. Understanding/empathy is as you said an enlightened state that we should all look for.