On Being Misunderstood

On Being Misunderstood

Before I left for vacation, I seemed to be suffering from an epidemic of misunderstandings.

Misunderstandings are an interesting thing.  They arise from lack of information, the wrong information, the wrong paradigm for interpreting information or, as often is the case, from different communication styles and personalities.

All that sounds really sanitary, simple and not too bad.  The problem is that misunderstandings can lead to conflict, gossip, confusion of motives, loss of respect and hatred or worse.

I’ve watched the destructive power of misunderstandings in ministry for years.  Pastors are often the most misunderstood as they communicate a lot, are responsible for much and necessarily have to lead people where they often don’t want to go.  Many of my pastor friends (and, unfortunately, their wives) have been scorched and scarred by misunderstandings that didn’t get resolved in time.

With me, the problem is pretty easy — it’s usually my fault.  I talk in the abstract so much (I mean what I mean) that many people who don’t know me or have different personality types (and say what they mean) hear my words, but don’t catch my meaning.  I’ve tried to get better at this and speak more clearly for over a decade, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I will probably always get lost in my thoughts and not provide adequate context for what I’m trying to say.

As I’ve been thinking about misunderstandings in general, however, I’ve had a few thoughts come to mind:

First, misunderstandings are a part of reality and human relationships.  If not, God would not have told us in Proverbs to hear both sides of a story, Jesus wouldn’t have given us a model of going to a person first before talking to others about frustrations and Paul wouldn’t have told us to use life giving words and avoid assuming we know someone’s motives.

Second, misunderstandings tear at our guts. Just read the Psalms and you’ll know what I mean.  Enemies, false friends, ill will, character assassination and the like make up a solid portion of the Psalms and prayers in scripture. Have you ever known the pain and helplessness that comes from knowing that someone is destroying your reputation, but not being able to do anything about it?

Third, misunderstandings fuel our prayers.  Again, just read the Psalms.  Much of what the biblical writers prayed had to do with the fatigue, fear, weariness, anger, confusion and desire for vindication stemming from being misunderstood.

Fourth, misunderstandings make us more compassionate.  This one might sound strange, but the empathy and compassion needed to meet others in their dark nights can only really grow out of our own suffering and experience of misunderstandings.  As Eugene Peterson once wrote in a book on prayer, “We are ejected from our cushioned private religion into solidarity with ‘the Silent Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed up.'”  The Psalms, and their articulation of suffering, connect us with our own emotions and tenderize us to the plight of the oppressed.

Lastly, I am an “Intuitive” on the Myers-Briggs and really don’t say what I mean, but I’d love to explain myself if you hear something that doesn’t make sense or sounds confusing.  I also prefer to speak for myself rather than have people believe what someone else tells them I said, did or am.  I’m not perfect, but I’ll try to do the same for you!

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