Molly sometimes studies me intently while I work. Here she is Monday night sitting on my desk watching closely as I wrote on my MacBook. It’s as though she’s a cat sociologist trying to make sense of these strange two-legged creatures.
I can empathize with Molly and I see why she seems to keep searching for a way to make it all make sense. I spend much of my time trying to understand human behavior — my own actions, the behavior of people I love, and the behavior of people I can’t stand.
A couple of days ago, I had a sudden realization about some minor point of human nature. I was excited to figure it out, but I was disgusted at what I understood. And I had a paradoxical thought.
The more I understand humans, the less I understand humans.
It was then I realized that I mean two entirely different things by the use of the word “understand.” Let me try to explain.
If I figure out what causes a person to act in a particular way — and what causes him to mechanically act out certain things when faced with certain triggers — I understand his behavior. I comprehend the mechanism that’s going on inside him. But that doesn’t mean I have an empathetic understanding of why that person allows that to happen.
The first sense of the word is about intellectual understanding. The second sense is about emotional understanding and empathetic identification.
When we are growing up, we tend to assume that most people are like us and also like the people around us. Whatever we are is “normal.” But some of us eventually start realizing that fewer and fewer people’s inner thoughts and feelings are like ours. This is confusing and even disorienting at first.
As we start seeing clues about the many ways that others are different from us, our own world can seem smaller and smaller. The more we learn about the specifics of how others think — the more we can even predict their patterns, even though they’re horrifying to us — the more some of us start feeling alone.
That’s because we understand what makes people do the things they do, but we feel as though we’re looking at the working of a horrible machine — something which can’t stop doing what it does and which has no consciousness of what’s going on inside.
It’s at this point that those of us who develop this understanding of humans start feeling the desperate need for someone to understand us. But what we’re looking for is not mere comprehension. We’re looking for someone to “get” us — to have an emotional and empathetic connection with us.
We need that connection because the rest of the world has disappointed us so much that we crave some validation of a more loving and empathetic way to live.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial 1961 novel, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” he introduced what seemed to be a simple word — “grok” — but it was a simple word with a very complex and deep meaning.
In the book, an orphaned human who had been raised by an alien race came to Earth. One of the alien concepts he taught from those who raised him was the verb “to grok.” To greatly oversimplify a very deep concept which permeates the novel, to grok a thing or person is to “understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you.”
When I first read the novel at the age of about 14, much of it was disturbing and the ideas went over my head. But by about the fourth time I read the book, I was able to look past the things which Heinlein had put into the book to intentionally disturb his readers — in order to force them to think.
And that was the beginning of starting to comprehend that truly understanding a person was far deeper than simply knowing facts or being able to predict patterns. It was a full understanding of something far deeper — accepting every single thing at the core of that person so completely that you treasure even things which you might hate.
(Understanding the word ultimately is the point of the book, so I can’t fully explain Heinlein’s ideas here, but you can read more at this link if you’d like to get a bit more about its context.)
So let me try to use the word to explain where I started. The more I understand the ways in which people function on this Earth, the less I like most of them. The more I detest most of them, in fact. The more I comprehend the things which make them tick, the more horrified I am at what wretched, awful creatures they are.
What terrifies me even more is to know that I am one of them.
I don’t want to be like what I see around me. I don’t want to be mechanically sleepwalking through life until the point at which it’s too late to stop life from having meaning.
I want to be fully understood.
I want to be known fully.
I want to fully understand and know another mind and heart in return. And I need it to be a mind and heart which something instinctive in me yearns to know — to “grok” fully.
My need to be loved and known and understood is the most selfish need I have, but my reciprocal desire to love and to know and to understand someone else is the most unselfish thing at the same time.
In Heinlein’s novel, Valentine Michael Smith is a human, but he’s been raised by aliens. After he finally comes to Earth — to be with his own kind for the first time in his life — he is equally human and alien. And that’s the way I have felt all my life.
I understand humans. I understand much about how amazing we are and how evil we can be. I know that both sides of that are in every one of us. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand human minds and human hearts. I will never know everything, but I think I understand more than most — only because I observe.
I’ve told you before that I feel like an alien. I feel as though I’m observing a race of people who are half like me and half nothing like me.
I’m tired and lonely from living that detached life. I want to grok someone. I want to completely love and understand and accept and know her.
I will always walk among humans as an alien — observing and trying to understand — but I need someone to walk with me. Someone who needs to be loved and understood and cherished.
Until then, I will walk alone and long for the day when the right person will walk with me.