In our column One Word, writers expound on a single word of their choosing.
On an international flight many years ago, I sat beside an old Eastern European man who spoke no English. He occupied the aisle seat and communicated with me by tapping my shoulder when the attendant came by, or by extending an open palm to pass my trash to her. We were eating a meal silently and, I thought, companionably in the near-dark, hunched over our trays, when he reached over and took my dinner roll. He didn’t make eye contact with me. He simply unwrapped my roll, took a bite, and then went on to eat the whole thing.
There was nothing ambiguous about it. The dinner roll was on my tray, and he’d already finished his own. Had he assumed I was done with my meal? But I’d had a fork in hand. At least half of my pasta remained.
It would be easy to riff on the idea that he took my bread because he was a man, or white, or because I was Asian and a woman. That it had to do with entitlement, with a pattern of taking. But that wouldn’t feel true, not in this case. It would feel only like the sort of thing I was supposed to say.
So what was I left with? Not much, I admit. The conclusion that other minds are impenetrable. That reasons are never fully known.
When someone says in conversation, “I understand,” I’ve never felt that they understood much. It’s my hunch that the people who say “I understand” to me, in fact, understand the least. If only they understood that they didn’t understand, we would all feel less alone. If you remove the letter s from the word understand, you can rearrange the letters to spell the word redundant. One small slash of the pen, and you reveal that the whole word is useless.
The problem is that people like to express understanding of common life events. It makes sense; birth and death are universal, illness, evolving and deteriorating love, parenthood are nearly so. We all have some knowledge of these subjects. We want others to know that we also know. Human connection is the point of life.
The birth of my son, not to speak of the recovery afterward, was so difficult for me that for nearly a year after, memories of the two-day labor would continue to flash through my mind, unbidden, briefly blacking out my desire to live. It wasn’t just that I was forced to confront an elemental pain—the anesthesiologist placed an epidural in my spine three separate times, but it brought no relief—or that without repeated interventions of modern medicine, both my son and I likely would have died. It had something to do with living on that thin, pulsing edge for hour after hour and feeling that I was about to, even meant to, die. I have not really spoken about this with anyone, not other mothers, not my closest friends. Although I don’t think of myself as someone who is easily harmed by speech, I am afraid of hearing two simple words. If, at the hospital, my husband had told me that he understood, he would have torn our relationship in two. Instead, he cried.
This is where people misstep: they express understanding of a specific, private experience you have not yet been able to sufficiently describe—an experience you yourself may not yet understand. I recall watching an art teacher correct an abstract painting of mine, painting over a section of detailed work with his large, white brush.
Recently, at the neighborhood playground, my son was scooping up bark in his hands and adding it to the growing pile on the bottom of the slide, an activity that gives him a sense of accomplishment, which in turn gives me a thrill. How easy it is for him to feel he’s acted upon the world.
A girl of three or four approached him and said something, and when he ignored her, she came up to me. She spoke too softly and had the loose enunciation of young children—in which they approximate words more than they hit them—so I said, “Excuse me?”
She mistook my confusion. Her eyes were huge and sorrowful. “I don’t speak your language,” she said. She continued to look at me, her gaze very direct in a way I liked.
Laughing, I said, “But you do.”
We quickly cleared up the matter. She wanted to go down the slide. She found the idea of hitting a pile of bark to be unacceptable. I swept the bark off the slide, my son cried, and then we all continued on with our lives.
Remembering it later, I marveled at the complexity of her thought process. Our neighborhood is predominantly Latino. Earlier I’d heard her speaking Spanish to her older sister, but the little girl’s attempts to communicate with me had been in English from the outset. When she thought I hadn’t understood her, she assumed I spoke a third language, one she could not access. At what age do we grasp the existence of whole worlds in other people’s minds? At what age do we grasp the notion of barriers?
In Mandarin Chinese, the commonly used terms dong (懂), mingbai (明白), liaojie (了解), and lijie (理解) can all be translated to the English “understand,” though which term you use is related to tone, context, familiarity, and abstractness. The breakdown of the terms can be illuminating. For example, mingbai is composed of the words ming, “bright” or “clear,” and bai, “white,” and conjures a sense of clarity. The written character for dong contains the radical, or written component, that means “heart”—often found in words that deal with feelings and thoughts. Lijie and liaojie both contain the word jie, “untie.” And the written character for jie (解) unfolds further. If you start at the upper right and work clockwise, you can identify the pictographs 刀 (knife), 牛 (ox), and 角 (horn); the word is said to have originated from “cut off the ox’s horn”—to dissect or open up.
In English, the word understand itself resists easy understanding. Its opacity is interesting, too. Stand under? When I stand under a bridge, I have no particular feelings or insights, except the vague sense that something large is looming over me, blocking my view of the sky. Romeo stands under Juliet’s balcony, Cyrano and Christian under Roxane’s, and a prince far below Rapunzel’s window. Let’s say they at least want to understand the person above them. But doesn’t their positioning—under, rather than face-to-face—make us question whether the under-stander in fact understands anything at all?
“Tunnel!” my son shouts. This word is pronounced “nunno” and must be exclaimed rather than spoken. A block and a half from our house, there is an underpass. Above it are train tracks. On walks, my son likes to linger here, in the shade of the concrete overhang. I try to hurry him along; pigeons have roosted along the top edges of the abutments, and the sidewalk beneath them is a scramble of feathers and bird shit. I have stumbled upon dismembered birds—the work of raccoons or feral cats. But my son, he likes it here. Maybe children are good at under-standing. He seems to know something about this spot that I do not.
The etymologist Anatoly Liberman posits that the Old English understandan is a blend of the synonyms forstandan, “stand in front of,” and undergetan, from whose root the modern concept of “getting someone” still lingers. If we give up our preoccupation with the specific preposition “under,” we are left with this fuzzy notion: I stand near you. I am close to you.
But sometimes I say, “I understand,” and what I mean is, “Please stop talking to me.” Usually the person doing the talking is saying the same thing, over and over, in a hundred different ways, and I am trying to signal receipt—I’ve got it, you have handed it over to me—so that the onslaught will stop. But often it does not stop. My mother is telling me she’s unhappy; doctors won’t listen, she has a hard time walking, her houseplants are failing to thrive. An in-law describes aging. The details are in flux, but the fear is constant. The conversations loop and replay. Everyone is saying, “Hear this. Hear me.” But I just say, “I understand.” It’s a way of walking away, of adding distance while still standing in the same exact place. Maybe I don’t want to understand. Maybe I suspect a gutting awaits me at the end of that road. Or maybe, as we age, the desire to understand fades a little, while the need to be understood grows larger and ever more pressing.