Mis(sing)Understanding: Kobe, Pompeo, and a Paper Towel by Marcia Mount Shoop
Who knows when each of us first learns that sensation—the sensation of being misunderstood. My hunch is that it comes early on in our lives, maybe even before our brains are making narrative memory, maybe even before we have begun to understand much of anything about ourselves or the world. But it doesn’t take much for the seed to be planted in us that the world won’t always understand us.
My mom has long told me a story about me as a frustrated toddler trying to be understood. I was sitting in my high chair, the story goes, and I started saying “puppy touw.” My mom was not sure what I wanted, but I became more and more adamant, saying “puppy touw” over and over again.
She brought the dog over thinking I might mean I wanted the dog. She showed me all kinds of toys and nearby objects in an effort to understand and respond to my increasingly urgent request. I became more and more frustrated, kicking the high chair, moving my body in the chair, saying “puppy touw” louder and louder through tears.
Finally by some stroke of maternal genius my mom offered me a paper towel, and I immediately calmed down and wiped up a small spill on my high chair tray. “Puppy touw” was toddler speak for “paper towel.”
What a gift to have someone willing to hang in there with the growing tension, agitation, and frustration until she understood. What a gift that I didn’t give up on being understood.
There are lots of other ways this exchange could have gone. My mom could have gotten angry and taken all sorts of steps to try and correct my behavior. From punishment to shaming to ignoring me, she could have made a choice not to expend the energy it takes to really listen to someone you don’t understand.
I could have given up. I could have learned then that there is no point in trying to be understood, that no one really cares to know what it is I need.
Understanding is like an endurance sport. If you want to truly get good at it, you have to continually leave your comfort zone and last longer at it than you thought you could. You have to push through pain and fatigue. You have to have inner resources to draw on to help you keep going when you want to quit.
Being misunderstood may be one of the most profound human afflictions of our time. It trivializes our relationships. Triviality is a form of deprivation—a recipe for a slow erosion of trust and hope.
How often do we actually spend our time engaging in the strenuous work of understanding or trying to be understood? One’s answer to this question is loaded with context and necessitates a power analysis. (see full post on Feminism and Religion website)