“I Can Understand That”

Warning: This article sounds pretty Post-modern…

Lately I’ve been thinking about the commonly used phrase, “I can understand that“, in the context of a person’s having a moral failure of some sort. I’ve said it so many times and not thought about it too much. Don’t we all? Imagine someone who can’t accept the fact that she won’t get to spend forever married to her husband because when they get to heaven they will no longer be wedded to one another. I can understand that. Imagine a father wanting to kill a man after he murdered and raped his daughter. I can definitely understand that (couldn’t you?). Imagine a teenage guy catching one glimpse of a pornographic image on a computer, coming back in naïve interest and subsequently falling into a powerful addiction for years. I can understand that.

But what do we mean when we say it?  While I intuitively probe around in the mental state that occurs when I say those words, I get this line of thought: “I can definitely see how it would be incredibly easy for this person to fall into this, and thus I do not judge them.”  Or maybe something like this: “I can see, from my perspective, how this choice could seem desirable and compelling to this person at the point he or she made it, so I do not “judge him or her.”

But if there are some moral failures to which we are content to apply the personal descriptor “I can understand that”, does that mean that there are some that we honestly can’t understand? For example, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to do something like what Adolf Hitler did. I don’t understand why a person would get the ideas he did, why he would try to exterminate such a large group of people, and etc. I also can’t understand why any person would want to bully people. Bullying people goes so against my nature that I get a sick feeling in my stomach at the thought of it. I can’t mentally bring myself to understand that desire.

I will point out, however, that all of these truths about my not being able to understand actions seem to proceed from my introverted and non-forceful personality type. I am not a bold person. I am naturally so dependent upon people’s approval that I can’t imagine ridiculing my peers. Now if the fact that I cannot understand why a person did something proceeds not necessarily from the heinousness of the act but from my inability to grasp why they would do such a thing, it seems to me not a problem on that person’s part, that I cannot understand them, but on my own. Notice, however, how we seem to reject all those who commit immoral acts which we cannot understand, while being far more lenient on those who commit immoral acts that we can understand.

My point is this: we apply the label “I can understand that” to immoral acts which from our perspective we can understand happening, but the fact that we can’t understand something is a measure of our own lack of insight, not a measure of how much we ought to separate ourselves and society from a person or group. We must come to a point where we realize that for all actions (immoral or not), these actions appeared worthy of choice to the people who chose them at the time (if not so, they wouldn’t have performed them!), and are thus “understandable” at least to someone (and if you were in that situation with their biological equipment and personality, you would likely do something very similar). I’m not trying to claim that these things aren’t wrong. Sin is sin, and it is to be eradicated from our lives. But we would do well to realize that sin is not what is publicly abhorrent, but rather, “whatever does not proceed from faith…” (Romans 14:23) To put it more bluntly, in judging the moral character of other people and their acts by how well we do or do not understand them, we set ourselves up as the judges of good and bad… a job typically reserved for the omniscient and eternal God.

Now consider the implications of this: are there not certain individuals that we tend to “shy” away from because of the “weird-ness” of their actions and demeanor? Are there not certain individuals or groups whom we subconsciously consider inferior to us because of the moral failures in their past and present? Perhaps it would do us and others good to consider that our lack of understanding of others is due to our own lack of insight, rather than the so-called “inferiority” of others.

In addition to all this, I think you can extend this principle into practicing tolerance of other’s beliefs. I cannot understand how some people choose to be Hindus, but I’m sure if it was explained to me I would be enlightened and far less likely to consider Hindus inferior. In the past I did not understand how a person could buy post-modern philosophy concerning morality hook, line, and sinker. But then I almost did, and now I understand. I had an arrogant phase last year where I wickedly made fun of those who took a stand on the age of the earth different than my own. But then I almost became a member of opposing line of thought last summer, and now I can understand them much better.

Given that we understand others’ actions a lot better when we’re either nearly put in their shoes or actually are put in their shoes (metaphorically, of course—don’t steal shoes!), we should always give consideration to the unknown. Maybe there is something I don’t understand about my atheist friend that causes him to do what he does. (Maybe he’s right about a lot of things, and I could learn from him?) Maybe there’s something about those who disagree with me that I don’t understand. Let’s make this our mindset, so that we may follow in the steps of Christ himself, who said “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”. (Matthew 7:3-5)