understanding, communication, and being wrong


“It would just be so much easier if I was just mad at him. But I’m not– I mean, I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. It hurts so badly, but I get it. I really do.”
“No, you misunderstood. That’s not what I meant.”
“Wait! Please, just let me explain!”


I was talking about this concept with a friend of mine the other day, and a few things I read today solidified it all for me. I don’t think that what I’m about to talk about is a particularly Christian problem, but I think that Christian rhetoric surrounding ideas like community, harmony, and forgiveness all exacerbate this problem.

It’s this rather basic notion that if we understand where the other person is coming from, if we understand what that person said or even why they said it, then… we shouldn’t be upset. If actions, or words, are capable of being understood, then there’s no place for anger. And, frequently, we tend to portray an emotional reaction as one not based on understanding. We only get angry when we don’t understand.

We can see this in all of the tragedies we’ve experience recently. Why would anyone want to bomb an event like the Boston Marathon? It just seems so… so incomprehensible. Why in the world would someone walk into a crowded movie theater and gun people down? That’s insane.

And, we see it on a smaller scale. A Cry For Justice talked about this in a post today:

The typical goal of those called upon to “help,” [in church disagreements] is the preservation of unity, the reconciliation of relationships, the extending of forgiveness, and the attainment of true understanding of the other by each of the previously estranged parties. Peace. Harmony. Unity = Success. That is the mindset . . . the philosophy embraced by such “helpers” is not going to be one of doing justice for the wronged, calling evil for what it is, and justifying the good and righteous. Indeed, such people don’t really even acknowledge evil. They assume that everyone in the matter surely has a good intention, but there has merely been a breakdown in understanding. So the answer is to facilitate communication.

This concept has also reared its head in the comment thread on my post at NLQ. A new commenter, who goes by “Patricia” is sympathizing with David Cuff, who had this to say about how the purity culture told me that I was responsible for my rape:

“While many of us have fallen from the Biblical standard for sexuality, if we repent and turn back to His guidance we can walk in the Light of His love for ourselves and our spouse.”

Patricia stressed, in the seven comments she left, that we were all being so emotional, and if we “humbled” ourselves and “objectively” examined what David said, we would realize that we’d just “misunderstood” him:

David, You have been misunderstood. I find your posts kind and compasionate [sic], while also agreeing and being able to relate to Samantha’s original post. This is all a sad misunderstanding. What makes it even sadder is the fact that no-one is willing to humbly renounce to their “emotion” for the sake of doing justice in this matter.

Here’s the problem.

None of us misunderstood David Cuff. We were all extremely well-versed in the kinds of terminology David was using, we all understood that he was representing the purity culture, we knew what he meant by trying to explain biblical redemption to us. None of us missed his main point, and the general tone and thrust of his comments. One of my readers here, Anne,  had an amazing way of phrasing the tension:

Repentance and redemption, in general, are important concepts to discuss, sure. But this wasn’t a general “type whatever’s on your mind today and feel free to change the subject” blog post, it’s on a very specific, very sensitive topic. He lost me at “repent.” No matter what little niceties about grace and forgiveness follow it up, that was a conversation-changing choice of words . . .

Person A: The culture I was raised in made me especially vulnerable to abuse and I was raped.
Pastor B: I’d like to reiterate the importance of sexual purity, and that it doesn’t change if you’ve been abused.

Anne understood David’s point. She acknowledged that his goal had been to communicate a message concerning “biblical redemption,” and she even acknowledged the importance of such a message. What she is referring to, and what we were all objecting to, wasn’t based on a misunderstanding— we were pointing out the inappropriateness of how and where he decided to communicate this message.

This happens in so many areas of our lives, however, and isn’t limited to rants on the internet. I can understand all kinds of evil things. I can understand why people do evil things. One of the reasons why Iago is my favorite character in Shakespeare is that he’s evil, to his very core, but he’s still an understandable and relatable character.

This even happened in my relationship with Handsome. At one point during our engagement, he decided to take a course of action that involved me without asking what I thought about it first. When he told me, I became distressed, and my first reaction was why would you do that? We spent a long time talking about it, and, eventually, I did understand why he’d thought it was a good idea. His decision-making process and his motivations made sense. But they were still wrong, and he agreed with me. It took a while for me to explain to him how his actions had hurt me, because, after all– he’d had a very good reason for doing it. But, eventually, he also understood that just because he had a very good reason didn’t make it ok.

Very often we conflate how incomprehensible something is with how wrong or evil it must be. Just because we can understand something doesn’t make it right.

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  • I saw Patricia’s comments.
    I feel like Christians in general are not comfortable giving space for the messiness of emotions and pain, and life, and like to delegitimize emotions, either as ‘just emotions’ or even as ‘the sinful reactions of the flesh’ (which I don’t know that anyone was doing in that comment thread but it’s been done to me my whole life)

    People need the space to be angry and mourn and reiterating your feelings on purity instead of listening to their problems and issues when you go to their space is kind of an invasion of that space and an unwise use of your time, because even if you had something they needed to hear, you need to listen before you speak…
    (Job’s friends are perhaps relevant here?)

    • I’ve actually been working on a post about emotions and temperance and how growing up I was told that “self-control” was the end-all-be-all of emotion. Yes, emotion is very much not considered legitimate.

      • I told someone yesterday that “our tradition” (I was careful not to say our church, because I don’t know how she feels about hitting that close to home) is very stuck on binary truth (one-right answer), and where the bible doesn’t give us binary truth the tendency is for that topic to be treated as invisible.

        The funny thing about emotion is that it doesn’t do “invisible” well. ;}

        So it has to be discredited so we can all pretend it’s invisible (i.e. insignificant, not worth studying and understanding).

        Yeah, I’ve wanted to write that post too. I’ll enjoy reading yours.

    • Margaret

      Job’s friends quite relevant.

  • Margaret

    Is there a male/ female component to the emotion issue? When I was younger, and I ranted about something, my husband would ask what time of the month it is. Now I’m past that, but still on anti-depressants, and the first question is, “did you take your meds today?” I told him today that what he did was wrong – no matter what mood I’m in. He’s just more likely to hear about it. “Emotion ” is a really big issue for me.
    Being emotional doesn’t negate what you say, but it may distract attention from it.

    • Unfortunately, I think many people assume that there is a gender component when it comes to emotions. Women are especially perceived as being “emotional,” and therefore, less rational. Men are “less emotional,” and therefore, more capable of being reasonable and rational. There’s this common perception that “emotional people are unreasonable,” and I think that this is a harmful stereotype– especially since “oh, you’re a woman, you’re just being emotional” is frequently used as a way to dismiss our legitimate concerns. And because emotions are associated with women, it’s also associated with being weak.

      This is a false dichotomy, and every time I hear it, it makes me cringe. Thankfully, Handsome payed attention to his mother his entire life and doesn’t do this. 🙂

      • I heard a very interesting interview that addressed this more-objectively than I had heard before.

        The researcher (a woman) being interviewed asserted that men do have a disconnect/distance from logic when they get emotional (her example was men doing stupid things when they’re angry), so they (and society with its habit of male=population norm) project a similar disconnect onto women, even though they show a higher level of holding it together (an example being a woman crying in a meeting about something important to her, but still presenting a cogent argument).

        My own theory has to do with psychic/psychological “noise” our brains are enduring at any given moment. It uses up our patience and “thinking brain” buffer, leaving us more and more to the instinctive/reactive brain.

        In this context I think the angry vs. crying comparison is unfair, because most people (there are studies on this) lose frontal-cortex facility in the heat of the battle.

        I think the reason the invalidation of emotion is so effective/powerful is that it feels true on some level.

        When I cry, it’s because I’m broken. If I still have any residual shame about being broken, or less-than-perfect confidence in my argument, the typical accusations will beat me down. And it wasn’t even *really* about whether the emotion made me less-rational.

      • I am both logical and emotional… I’m not exactly sure what people mean by rational; I usually hear it as the opposite of emotional. but logic, i’ve got that covered!

  • nellie

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your writing. My husband never acknowledged the truth of rape before. Recently, he met someone who’s been through it, and now he can’t theorize about it anymore. He actually shut his mouth and started listening.
    Please keep writing.

    • That is… incredibly sobering. But I’ve experienced that mentality before– was raised in it. It’s good that your husband’s been confronted by reality– it happens to all of us sooner or later.

  • Okay, this is what I came over to say ;} and got fascinated by earlier conversations.
    This: “Just because we can understand something doesn’t make it right.” Is so great.

    I’ve got this cognitive-dissonance thing I’m trying to work through, and this statement is a HUGE help (I’m going to back-pocket it). Basically, once I understand the other side (and I often do, b/c I’m adept at mental gymnastics) I’m immediately living under a gag order: I know how they got where they are, and “even though I disagree” I have nothing left I can say, b/c I’ve only been trained in logical arguments.

    Once we’re into ethical or whatever, I can *fiercely* believe something, but I am painfully mute to fight for it. I hope someday I learn different.

    (This, btw, is the perfect counter-argument to the emotion-is-worthless invalidation. Or at least the logic-is-best/enough attitude. That is, my logic and reasoning give out as soon as I engage my good Christian humility and see they have reasons for what they believe too. I have nothing left to swing with.)

  • remarkable post, Samantha.

    thank you!

  • Sandra

    Wow … eyes opening, those ol’ gears spinning away … YES ! I have never ‘seen’ this so clearly before. There is this false assurance that if we just understand, just communicate, just talk it through … all will be well. On the one hand we abandon a large part of humanity to the ‘not-saved’ box ie: sinful (not saying I believe this, just reducing a point of view I have heard FAR too often) but on the other we assume that a) all the evil is outside of our community and that b) none of it could possibly be within. Thank you for your incredibly insightful post AND for sharing the quoted paragraph from the Cry for Justice blog.

    And emotions … I have always been confused by this concept of emotions being wrong … and the parallel assumption that God has none. The God I read about in both his Old Testament guise and His wondrous incarnation … pure emotion 24/7 … he loves, he rages, he mourns, he is moved to compassion, he is perplexed and appalled … the entire range of so-called human emotion is there … so much so that often I have wondered if emotion isn’t part of the ‘in His image’ thing.

    Thank you for this post – I found your blog only yesterday and this is my first introduction to you and this community … feeling blessed already to be here !

  • If we misunderstood, he should have spoken up and said what he really meant. its not complicated.

    • @Lana I did multiple times on both blogs…Please read through the various posts on both blogs to hear the other side of this. I have been labeled guilty of saying women should repent from being raped (totally false). If you read my responses I believe I was misunderstood and then I even apologized for the hurt the misunderstanding caused. But I have been labeled a dragon and the majority rules….and the keyboard is mightier than the truth.

      • David, you should understand that the problem isn’t necessarily your initial choice of words, though they were not well-chosen. I’ve read the entire thread, and you’ve been shown, repeatedly and with great specificity exactly why the words you chose were wrong.

        You then continued to use those exact same words in your responses.

        The fundamental problem with your interactions at this point is not your trigger language, but the continued use thereof. Now, you’ve painted yourself as a victim, dredging up the old man-hating feminist routine (cleverly couching it within the “dragon” lexicon) as a means by which to show that it’s not your fault that you don’t listen or won’t change. This isn’t about you. You’re simply an extension of the society that victimizes women in ways that you still don’t seem to be able to understand, and are not willing to try to engage. Forgive me if I don’t shed any tears over your treatment.

  • Shiloruh

    The thing is that logic and emotion are not separate and unequal things. Much of western philosphy requires such a separation. However our lived experience shows that idea to be in error. We can be logical about our emotions and while we are being emotional, I could say that “detached calm” is an emotion, and not a superior one. We can also be emotional and quite passionate about our intellectual concepts, with out diluting them. We arrive at our knowledge on both paths and we can not function with out both. Logic and emotion are dual tools to guide us to our best decisions. As soon as someone challenges me and my ideas on those grounds, in either direction, I know they are more invested in derailing than finding solutions to the problems at hand.

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