Thoughts on Understanding

“Their situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timbre to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual.”

This is a quote from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Here the narrator is literally talking about screams of pain, but I think Nguyen knows exactly what he is doing here. The whole deal with the main character is that he has a knack for understanding other people’s feelings, and if not for the context of the book, I think a more accurate title, albeit less catchy and less contextually relevant, for our protagonist would be The Empathizer.

Book review aside, these few lines really resonated with me. It’s not the first time I’ve been introduced to this idea, but in this passage it really hits home. It’s interesting how sometimes when we try to make someone feel better we say, “I know how you feel” and while the sentiment and intention is nice, seldom does it to the person any good, unless purely by thought alone. But if you think about it, it’s actually quite baffling. Another person is in pain, and for some reason we think that that’s an appropriate moment to make things about ourselves, equating our experience to theirs for what purpose. We can never know what the other person is feeling. And if somehow we do know exactly what the other person is feeling, letting them know that doesn’t really help and in someways can diminishes their own experience. It is important to try to understand, and recalling our own experiences is an important part of that, but it’s probably not necessary it to tell them all about it, because it’s never the same, especially in the moment. The best we can do is offer our support and let them know that we are there for them.

This idea extends beyond tragedy. Simply understanding that each individual experiences the world differently can help bring us close to a more empathetic, compassionate world. Trying to understand another person is one of the most important things we can do.


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