You Just Don't Understand.
“You just don’t understand, you’ve never been through it.”
Other than angry insults and harsh actions, there is hardly a more effective way to burn a bridge than by uttering those few words. It puts a wall up, immediately creating an “us versus them” philosophy. It says that unless someone has been in your exact situation, they can’t possibly understand your plight.
In a sense, that is true. But not entirely. See, the entire beauty of human nature is the capacity for compassion. We are not robots, computers that can only understand input and past experiences. We are, as a whole, empathetic by nature. We hear a news story of some horrible tragedy, and immediately feel a stirring in our hearts. Never knowing the person, our hearts go out to him, to his dilemma. We filled moved by the problems of strangers, feeling compelled to give of ourselves to those who would have called strangers.
And yet, despite this, we hold the world at arm’s lengths. We keep our pain hidden, our secrets buried. The world may know of our trials, but not how it affects us. They see the outside, murmuring about how difficult it must be – but on the inside, that is where the hurts are kept.
And we continue to accuse others of a lack of understanding. And certainly, there’s plenty of that – but that’s fodder for another post, like this one about the loss of a child. But for this post, I want to focus on the ones who are actually in pain.
See, sometimes it isn’t so much that lack of understanding equals lack of caring, or that ignorance is due to never being exposed to the same hurts. Sometimes, it’s because you shut them out. Those words, four syllables, and you create a gulf between you and the person who’s trying to understand.
It’s true, they haven’t been through it. They haven’t felt their heart shred into pieces as their life was torn apart – whether it’s the loss of a child, or never having had one in the first place, or something else entirely. They haven’t felt that pain.
But – they have felt pain. They know what it’s like to have hopes crushed, dreams trashed and thrown aside, hurt by life or even loved ones. We all have our hurts, our trials in various degrees. And while we could sit in a circle and have a contest to see whose horse is bigger, when it comes down to it, there’s no comparing pain. Even between those who have gone through similar circumstances, there’s still no comparison. Just because one got through it a certain way doesn’t mean another will. Human nature is far too nuanced.
So they haven’t felt YOUR pain. But it’s pain just the same. And while some may be uncaring, throwing aside your own hurts like so much trash, throwing out careless advice or outright criticism – that’s not the case for all. Some truly do care, do want to understand.
But then you say those words. “You don’t understand – you’ve never been there.” And a wall goes up. You’ve just told them that what they say could never possibly matter, because they haven’t been where you are. That no matter how much they try to care, it won’t make a difference in your pain.
It’s true, they haven’t been there. But what’s not true is that personal experience limits the capacity to understand. Experience isn’t necessarily the gateway to empathy – how many others can name those who have gone through similar experiences, but turn out harsh or bitter? It’s not the experience that makes the person, but rather the heart. And some do have a heart to understand.
Instead, meet them halfway. They may not understand – but they are open-minded, with hearts ready and willing to share the load. You just have to be willing to give it up. Let them come over, see what it’s like to go through what you have to deal with.
And be prepared. There will likely be bloodshed. Careless words that drive deep into your heart, ripping open a new level of pain. But that’s okay – because that same person will be there to help you heal. Don’t brush it aside, either hiding it or blaming it on their ignorance. Be open, show them the effect of their words. Let them see the tears that you’ve buried, the cost of what was said. And as you begin to do so, you’ll start to see a change. They will come to know, to understand.
It won’t always be perfect. They are human, just as you are. There will be things they say that will still sting. But the point isn’t to take away the sting – that will remain regardless. The point is to share it, to keep the lines of communication open.
Your pain will remain either way. But if you at least let someone try to understand, gently noting when they’ve crossed the line or pushed too deep, then they can begin to see where you are coming from, to see behind your trial.
Putting up that wall drives them away, makes them nervous about even trying to understand. What if they inadvertently say something that’s taboo? Sometimes, the taboo is just as much on the attempt to understand as it is on even discussing these “deep” topics at all. This is the key to removing the taboo on “forbidden” topics.
I’ve never lost a child. But still, I was able to understand the pain of such a loss, enough to portray it from the perspective of a couple who did lose their little one. I came close to losing my own daughter, but even that was after the book had already been published.
I have a daughter of my own, one I was able to conceive without help. But even so, I can understand the gaping hole left in the hearts of those unable to have children.
And so many other of life’s trials…
It hurts. It really does. But there can be no meeting in the middle if both sides aren’t willing to give a little. So instead of counting hurts, excluding those who “don’t understand,” forming clubs around those who all have the same pain (not referring to support groups – those are absolutely needed!), refusing to connect with others simply because they haven’t been there – maybe we can meet underneath that old Georgia pine.
Come sit with me. I’ll pour you a cup of coffee and try not to stumble over my words.