success stories

Posted October 22, 2003

The Power of Understanding

From The Promise of Virtue

Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you.” Proverbs 4:7

“There is gong to be an explosion if we are told once again we have no priest shortage.”

The pastor who said this was a veteran priest, ordained 29 years, who had a 4,000-family parish and a large school. Even though I had never met him before, I had immediate simpatico with him because he reflected the feelings of many priests I had interviewed.

He went on to say, “I’m lucky to have the support of a resident priest and a deacon. Most men aren’t, and are stretched to the maximum. You know, we could take this if we could get away every so often, but we can’t because we can’t find substitutes.”

What he said next touched a chord in me, “We wouldn’t mind struggling with these problems if we felt those in authority understood our situation.”

What is especially striking in that sentence is his vision of understanding which he sees generating enormous staying power when it is practiced well by those with whom he works. In other words, “When others truly understand us, the moral support this offers enables us to withstand almost anything.”

It goes without saying that all of us are often stretched beyond our limits. Even though our society seems to be making progress, one has to wonder about the workaholics it has turned us into. Crowded commuter trains to and from work start at 5:00 a.m. and go till midnight. To make ends meet, both husband and wife must work. Raising children has become a much more difficult task than when our grandparents raised theirs. And there is always the pressure that more has to be accomplished more quickly.

We can cope with these pressures if we understand our purpose, and especially if we feel someone else understands our situation. But when this understanding is missing, explosions occur.

In addition to its moral support, understanding is the one virtue, more than any other, that our society is desperately seeking to create greater unity. We have only to reflect on three pressing concerns to confirm this: 1) the exigency for better understanding diverse cultures in this country; 2) the urgency to comprehend the reasons behind the polarization that threatens national solidarity; and 3) the need to better understand why so many families are breaking up.

During a conversation with the renowned sociologist Fr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., I once asked, “Are the reports of growing immigrants and the concerns of many about his all that worrisome?”

He replied, “Gene, many people don’t know it, but immigrants aren’t only on our doorstep, they are in our houses. Not only should we be concerned about the first generation, but we especially need to be concerned about the second generation because we are losing it.”

In their 1992 pastoral letter observing the fifth centenary of evangelization in the Americas, the bishops recognized this concern and declared that “diverse cultures and peoples” making up the Catholic church in the United States” is a special gift.”

When we look at this statement more closely, does it not jolt us into the realization that the better we understand this gift, the more apt we are to welcome immigrants and keep them in the fold?

Greater understanding is equally important if we are to successfully overcome the divisions that separate us. Today we live in a highly polarized society. The better we can comprehend that which is splintering us, the better we can bridge differences, and avoid anarchy and the kinds of riots we experienced not too long ago.

State and county rules requiring an educational period before marriage is yet another signal that people are realizing the need for better understanding. This process has been initiated to slow down the number of divorces. The irony is that these rules mandate that couples take time before marriage to better understand each other so that misunderstandings will not lead them to quick divorces. In this ruling we can hear the old saying, “Look before you leap.”

Hearing cries for greater and deeper understanding leads us to ask, “What exactly does it mean and what in it has everyone looking to understanding for solutions?

Understanding, simply defined, is noticing what another person means, recognizing why the person acts as he or she does, and why the person lives as he or she lives. It comes from the Latin word intus legere, meaning “to read inwardly.” In every day conversation, we often use phrases that reflect this root meaning like: “I can’t read him or her,” or, “We don’t have a reading yet on which way the storm will go.” The root meaning of understanding creates the image of our entering into an author’s mind or observing some phenomenon with a wish to grasp meaning.