The Spiritual Discipline of Being Misunderstood

error-101408__340I was having breakfast with a colleague about a month ago and for some reason the writer/theologian, Dallas Willard, came up. My colleague was sharing about a conference he went to years ago at which Willard spoke and they had a roast of him. One of the jokes was that if you wanted to understand him, you should go read John Ortberg (another writer and mentee of Willard). As we talked, it became clear that Willard was often misunderstood. His style of writing did not lend itself to over explaining. Ortberg, in one of his books talks about a time that he called Willard asking for advice and Willard simply said, “Don’t hurry.” Ortberg’s reaction was, “That’s all you’ve got for me!” But discovered later in life that it was one of the most profound pieces of advice he had received and became an entire chapter in one of his books. From all that I’ve read and heard about Willard, he did not seem to need to explain himself and was very comfortable being misunderstood. I reflected on that and thought that there was a great deal of freedom and power in that position. Sometimes our words really lose their power when we try and explain them too much.

In my field, this can often be the case. Ironically, I think I said much less when I first became a therapist than I do now. The market and the culture have pulled me in a different direction. The demands of time and money do not allow for an individual to wait several sessions before getting something clear and tangible. I understand that, and I’ve accommodated and adjusted my style. I think my clients need that, but I ponder about what was lost with the mystery of a deeply meaning laden statement that needed to be unpacked by a client over several days on their own, rather than a clearly laid out analysis and picture that requires little digestion by the hearer. As I’ve reflected on this willingness to be misunderstood, I’ve begun to challenge myself to bring back a little of the old “me” into therapy, but I’ve begun to think of this discipline in a much broader sense. The freedom to not need to be understood.

Jesus was clearly comfortable being misunderstood and had a capacity to stay silent misunderstanding-2421389__340when many would have been tempted to scream. I’m reminded of an interview with a comedian that I heard on the radio. I heard it several years ago and it stuck with me all these years later. He was talking about trying out new material and he said that if he didn’t get laughs in three venues he would stop using the joke. But it was his next line that stuck with me, “It’s not that the joke wasn’t funny, they just didn’t get it.” I loved how much he valued and respected his work and thought how powerful it would be if we all had such balance in our lives.

Experts in the field of child rearing say that our explanations to our children need to be brief. Researchers often talk about how short our attention spans actually are. I wonder if we would experience more power and freedom in our lives if we could avoid over explaining and attempting to get people to understand us. If we could tolerate being misunderstood and know that there is a power in that.


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