About six years ago I was visiting my Uncle Paul in Abuja, Nigeria. We talked a great deal about many things: religion, philosophy, politics, etc. My Uncle Paul is a man of science, a retired surgeon, and we would often debate about matters coming from opposite perspectives. We enjoyed challenging each other on issues, I think. Towards the end of my stay, he said something to me that I’ll never forget, “You have good insight in how you see people, almost naturally. I suspect of course the person you have the least insight into is yourself. And maybe it’s because few will have insight into you as well.”
I don’t imagine myself to be a complicated person. Certainly I have the qualities of someone with a complicated story. Born into a complex country, having to leave it at a young age for political reasons, starting university a few months shy of seventeen years of age in a new country, failing at going to law school, getting into a public writing career by chance, etc. But I don’t consider any of those things to be too distant from the unique occurrences that take place in any lifetime. Take separate pieces from any of our lives and there are rarities; but perhaps our lives as a whole are mostly spectacularly ordinary.
And in our spectacularly ordinary lives, we all often search for the same things – a life where our needs are met, our dignity is recognized, laughter, and love. Oh, love. What you and I have done and will do for love sometimes thoroughly terrifies me. In the ideal, many of us are products of love. But that is the ideal. And when we come into the world, the other ideal is that we are looked after by people who love us. And then perhaps we meet and make friends who love us, and if we are lucky and blessed, we fall in romantic love, for a time – for a few times – or maybe for a lifetime. Love, in the end it is what counts, isn’t it?
It seems to me that love isn’t as hard as we all make it out to be. I mean in one sense perhaps our language is so limited that we do not have the right vocabulary to express the complexities of love – the sacrifice, the respect, the desire, the passion, the frustration. Love is all these things and more. And we make commitments and promises and vows, and we love; the best of us love until it hurts. But still I say, this might not be as hard as we all make it out to be. Or juxtaposed against the mystery of understanding someone, love seems to be the easy part.
It seems quite common practice to love people you do not understand. None of it seems rebellious or unique. But I do often find that we are eager to love and to be loved, but we are less anxious to understand the people we claim to love. We are quick to understand that we are in love but slow to understand understanding a person. Why is that? And how is that? And what does it even mean to really understand someone?
I think one of the reasons why we can love quickly but understand so slowly is that understanding requires silence and reflection and paying attention in particular ways to everything that makes up a person – everything. And who among us, has that kind of time for everyone that we say we love? We are busy. Busy with things and people and life, and ironically, busy with love. But I think that we would perhaps love better if we took time to understand better. Understanding means you see the person and all that they are with an empathy that is not so ordinary. This empathy is deliberate but carefree, impassioned, and earnest.
I have never seen myself as someone to be loved by everyone. Respected perhaps, but not loved in the most ordinary sense. But I have always paid attention to how people love, and what people say they love, and who they love, and what they say about love. I have always paid attention to people. Most, I think, are more loved than they realize. But they also mistake being loved for being understood. And sometimes the loneliness one feels is not from being unloved but from not being understood. Or worse, being misunderstood. Love is beautiful and spectacular. But being understood is even more so, because it is rarer than love. Being understood is being free to be you always – love doesn’t always offer us that. And if we can find in somebody, the potential to love and understand us, we have found an exceptional being. If we can be that somebody to anyone, we are exceptional to them.
My uncle understood that more than anything, indeed even more than love, that I long to understand, and to be understood. And that perhaps without it, love, for me, would never be enough.