Starting from Understanding

I offer this quote up so frequently that I’m not even sure it means anything anymore, but if it still speaks to me, let’s say it’s due to resonance and not indolence (whereby repetition gets confused with truth).

Love is the wish to understand.

Succinct. Beautiful. Hopeful. Kudos to Graham Greene for such poetry in his novel The Heart of the Matter. Love isn’t a thing you achieve, it’s a project you undertake. One that persists as long as you are curious. When you start from understanding (or rather the humble wish to understand), you’re bound by love, and so you’re more likely to be generous in your interpretation of what you experience, be it an event, a person, or a thing. Too often, we start from judgment, which is a far more unforgiving form of uncertainty than understanding. When we wish to understand, we accept that we don’t know, perhaps even that we may never know, but we pursue anyway. When we judge, we ignore that we don’t know and find empty comfort in petty certainty.

Strangely, I was reminded of this quote during a fairly trivial journey: interpreting the film Inherent Vice (which Fuller and I recorded an episode about last night). I realized that because I started from the wish to understand the film, so that I could have a meaningful dialogue with Fuller about it, I let it come alive for me in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in a standard viewing of it, where I might sit in passive judgment, waiting to unleash a final verdict. We’re encouraged to approach our world from this position: judge, trust your judgment, move on and don’t waver. It’s easy to operate in this way. It’s efficient, requiring minimal mental and emotional energy. And this is where we fail each other. Because we’re unwilling – or rather, because we’re trained to become unwilling to give each other a chance, especially if we don’t generate an immediately positive judgment, we sever the possibility of understanding. It seems to me that we forgot how much we’re losing in this process; we even forget that we’re losing anything at all.

The wish to understand promises nothing. Judgment promises comfortable certainty. But it only leaves you with judgment in the end. The wish to understand leaves you with the possibility of meaningful relation, and even if it’s bound to dissolve, it’s a possibility that’s full of life. Judgment brings death.

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