What is it about understanding?

I’m reading Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as you may know. I also had the recent good fortune to spend a weekend with an economist–newly minted, but nevertheless good at what he does. I’m fascinated.

I can listen, and follow, and ask questions–even good ones!– but when the interchange stops, I can say nothing about what was discussed. In hindsight, I haven’t understood it.

This has happened to me before, plenty of times. (9th grade’s Algebra II springs forcibly to mind.) After years of practice and self-monitoring,  I know the mark of my understanding. I have understood when I can return to the topic after time has passed and share it with others. Or I can ask new questions without someone first dunking me back in the subject. When I understand something, I can explain it. And apply it.

In my social-media public life, I’ve spent the past twelve months or so fretting about mutual understanding–or rather, its lack as demonstrated by lots of talking-past and talking fast. I can’t point to myself as any sort of role model here; my digital spaces are as curated as anyone’s and I straddle few lines. The echo chamber is deep and narrow, like a well full of voices calling, “I feel isolated everywhere but HERE! Here you are all like me!”
This creeps me out, but widening my pool is upsetting, too. 

In high school, my Global Studies class held a few debates, featuring local adults informed and passionate about particular sides of the issue of that day. I especially remember the Zionist/Palestinian debate, since it consisted mostly of yelling. I still hate the memory, as much because I felt it wasted my time as because the emotional climate made me want to flee. (I feel about the same these days.)

In college, one of my professors was a member of Educators for Social Responsibility, and taught their precepts and techniques. The technique I remember most, though, I no longer recall the name for. I just remember the transformation.

To practice, two of us novice teachers volunteered to debate abortion, as divisive an issue then as it is now. Each person made their statement, and then the questions began. But these questions were designed to unfold, to walk toward the middle, to keep the speakers emotionally safe while exploring the places each was less certain. It turned out that both debaters wanted women making their own safe, healthy choices that affirmed children. From that perspective, both realized–along with us in the ‘audience’–that there were many ways they could work together…and only two where they wouldn’t. Because now they understood each other, instead of reactively hitting against the divisive part.

Perhaps I started this post wrong. Perhaps the needed word for this interpersonal climate isn’t “understand.” Perhaps the word is “comprehend.” Com as in with or together, prehend –like prehensile and apprehend–as in grab, or hold. Let’s hold with each other’s ideas…another synonym for comprehend is, after all, encompass.

I dare you: comprehend someone who makes you uneasy. And then: what can you do in the overlap, even as you continue to tackle your edge-part?

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