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Among a multitude of quotes and prayer snippets I find personally sustaining and universally relevant is William Penn’s, “O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand.” It’s right up there with St. Francis of Assisi’s, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Both are just that sweet combination of words that I can summon as needed throughout the day as I undertake my responsibilities, manage my relationships and process the daily news.
I need brief lines like these because, as a person who strives to be at peace with herself and the world, I am dismayed at how often I misinterpret the actions and beliefs of others, and how often they are misinterpreting mine. This “tyranny of misunderstanding” is, I believe, far too common to be my personal problem.
Wherever diverse populations coexist, the tyranny of misunderstanding is there to goad hurt feelings into bitterness or a heart-enslaving anger that wreaks havoc on relations between individuals, institutions, and nations. It’s a problem as big as the world. And as small as one’s house — which is why I do try to guard against the tyranny of misunderstanding when it threatens the peace of my marriage, communications with my teenagers and my daily encounters with my community.
As the mother of an Eagle Scout, and more importantly as a Christian, I understand “Be prepared” is a warning I have no excuse to ignore. But while being alert to impending disharmony is a good thing, I know it’s only a tiny step in the process of maintaining peaceful relations. Sincerity and humility are also in order; I can’t simply refuse to admit (to the relevant person, or a priest, or both) the possibility (or certainty) that I’ve been wrong, or mean, or thoughtless or selfish.
Likewise, I must be willing to forgive, and at least try to forget, when others intentionally or indirectly hurt me in those same ways.
Where there is no dialogue between neighbors, there can be no clarification of opinions; where there is no clarification of opinions, I must simply accept to be misunderstood. And I must do so as gracefully and generously as possible. If I don’t, if I let my neighbor’s perceptions tyrannize me, my sense of being hurt or wronged can demonize my neighbor into my enemy.
Is this a depressingly exaggerated outcome? Maybe. But I still suspect that, regardless of whether I think my neighbor “started it,” I’m essentially a threat to peace — starting locally and growing globally — whenever I’ve failed to resolve the little wars raging in my own heart.
At least for me, the daily exchange of information and ideas — whether balanced or frustratingly lopsided — is a potential minefield, particularly when it comes to passionate topics like religion and politics. I want to love my family and my friends and my neighbors as I love myself. I also want, want, want to understand and be understood.
When I can’t have it both ways, however, I must seek the guidance of our Lord Jesus Christ, who set the eternal bar for what it means to suffer the tyranny of being misunderstood — by literally rising above it.
Lani McDonaldis a wife and mom who writes news articles and literary nonfiction from a new-feminist, wholistic Catholic perspective. Her work has appeared in newspapers, poetry journals and various business and diocesan publications. Follow Lani on Twitter @catholicchick13 and on Facebook, or e-mail email@example.com.