How to Understand Others: Mind, Feeling, and Emotion

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the book “Seeing and Being” by H. Clay Trumbull, published in 1889.

There is a universal truth that many of us fail to realize as we go through life. That is, unless we really like a person, especially persons of profound character and wisdom, we will not be likely to understand them, their words, or their life in its totality. Without the insight which sympathy gives, we cannot penetrate the recesses of their mind and character, so as to know them as they truly are, and to understand their sayings and actions as they intend them to be understood.

The common belief is that, in order to come into sympathy with someone, and to like them deeply, you must first know them thoroughly and understand them as they are; but the truer truth is that, in many cases, the sympathy and liking must PRECEDE the understanding; and that the worthier one is of being loved and admired, the more difficulty there is of understanding them until you DO love them, or until in some way you come to have a feeling of kinship with them.

There are persons, to be sure, who show themselves at the best on the surface, and who in fact have nothing but surface to show. Seeing them once, you know them as well as you could know them if you were to see them a thousand times. There is nothing to be wondered at or questioned over in their case; there is no mystery there; no need of the insight of sympathy to give you an understanding of them, and of their sayings and doings.

You like them or you dislike them at the start — or you have no sense of either like or dislike in their case — and you have never a reason, afterward, to change your opinion of them; for you can never have any different basis of opinion.

But there are other persons who show very little of themselves on the surface, who have depths of character not to be fathomed at a glance. You are conscious that you do not understand them fully to begin with. And the more you see of them, and study them, the less confident you are of your real acquaintance with their thoughts and habits of feeling; and the surer you are that there is a great deal yet to be learned about them before you can know them thoroughly.

They may be exceedingly attractive in their manners and bearing, yet they are unapproachable beyond a certain point. Or, they may be in a measure repellent to you, and yet you feel compelled to study them by an undefined sense of their hidden power. These are the sort of persons who can never be understood except through the insight of sympathy, who must be thoroughly appreciated before they can even be studied to advantage.

Unless you come to be at one with them in feeling, if not in thought, you can never know them at their best, or know them as they are. It is not the coarser, but the finer, fiber of the soul that is hidden from the outer gaze. It is the gentler, lovelier side of a refined nature that shrinks from exposure to every eye.

There are the hearts that ache for love and sympathy that cannot ask for either love or sympathy. Timid and sensitive, with all their longing for friendship and fellowship of soul, they cannot give a single look or word of personal interest or attachment when affection for (and sympathy with them) is not already manifest.

Even when their hearts are full to bursting of kindly feeling, they cannot give it such expression in formal words as will make it plain to the unsympathetic ear: “For words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within.”

The wealth of affection and the depth of tenderness in their warm hearts can never be recognized except through the insight of sympathy. And there are heart struggles in some strong natures which mark the outer person with a forbidding toughness that turns away all thought of tenderness as a possibility in them, and that even shuts out from the ordinary observer the idea of them being one to confide in trustfully. Only the insight of sympathy can give an understanding of that individual as they are; and that insight would change our distrust into confidence, and suspicion into pitying admiration.

As it is in these extreme cases (of the exceedingly sensitive and the sorely beset heart), so it is in a greater or lesser degree with the best parts and the larger wealth of every nature. The more there is to be known in a character, or to be understood in a career, the smaller is the share of it that can be known at the start. It is the depths of a soul that are farthest from the surface. It is that which is best worth having that is not proffered with an open hand to everybody. And the larger measure, the deeper depths, the richer treasures, of every character are to be discerned only through the insight of sympathy.

Not until we are fairly alongside of such a nature, having a kinship feeling with it, and judging it with a kindly and even partial interest, can we know it as it is. “No soul can ever clearly see / Another’s highest, noblest part, / Save through the sweet philosophy, / And loving wisdom of the heart.”

It is sympathy, not mere affection, that has the discerning insight which makes clear to the observer that which others cannot understand in the character they note or study. To love another is not necessarily to understand the nature and the moods and methods of the object of one’s affection. But sympathy perceives at a glance the full meaning of that which is a mystery to even a loving eye.

Yet where there is entire sympathy there will also be a certain liking, as an accompaniment or consequence of that sympathy. Although, on the other hand, the sincerest love does not, as a matter of course, secure sympathy. There may be love without sympathy; but where there is sympathy, there will be love. It is the lack of sympathy which makes so much of unhappiness between some who love one another dearly.

No one but a mother, for example, can really understand a mother’s thoughts and hopes and anxieties. A true mother can understand every other true mother, within the sphere of truest motherhood. She knows just what that mother as a mother does, or wants to do, and why. It is not their like experiences that give her this understanding; for she may have never been in precisely the same circumstances as the other. But it is their common basis of feeling, their heart-likeness (not their heart-oneness) that gives her this insight.

So, also, it is with a veteran soldier. They alone can fully understand the thoughts and natural conduct of someone under fire, of an individual bracing themselves up to face death with seeming unconcern while every nerve is on a quiver. So, again, it is with a person of extreme sensibility, of exceeding tenderness of conscience. Seeing in another that which might even be judged as affectation or sheer folly, they perceive it to be the most natural and unavoidable thing in the world, although they never did or thought of doing such a thing themselves.

They understand it all, not because they have been through it all, but because they are, by their very nature, in sympathy with the sufferer, and realize that, in like circumstances, they might feel and do the same.

They also know just why that person is so quick to take offense, on an occasion when some might think there was no need of being ruffled. They know what that shrinking shyness means, on the part of one who might otherwise be boldly confident in that company. They know the significance of that pale face and those compressed lips, or of that forced smile and show of indifference, when to others there seems nothing to be explained.

They know what is implied by those unconscious references to the bitterness of life, or the losses greater than those from death. They know how much fixity of purpose underlies those apparent varying moods, and they even read the causes of many a special mood. How do they know all these things? Not from their study of the cases under observation, but from their kinship-feeling, at that particular point, with the persons observed.

It is the insight of sympathy just there which shows to them more than others know, more than close study could possibly have revealed to them.

How often has it been seen, that one whose course has appeared a contradiction and a bewilderment stands suddenly before us, all at once, in simple consistency, through our coming into sympathy with them by being brought unexpectedly to their stand-point of observation, and to their plane of feeling.

We may have studied them with untiring interest before this; we may have been sincerely attached to them; but neither our study nor our affection gave us an understanding of them. Being brought, however, into sympathy with them, coming to FEEL with them — or to perceive just HOW they feel — all that has before been a mystery is resolved as by an instant blaze of light from the heavens.

Sympathy of feeling makes clear what neither word nor thought could convey or comprehend. So it is always. In order to learn most about another, we must come to FEEL with them, rather than to STUDY ABOUT them.

What are we thus to do? Can we never know a person until we are in full sympathy with them? Must our hearts always go out in loving interest toward another before our minds can be fully informed as to their qualifications and worthiness? Not quite this; for there are very many who have no hidden nature, and whom we can understand as well as we need to know them, without any special insight of sympathy.

But it is important for us to realize that there is no key to the treasures of another’s soul: like sympathy, and that some whom we now think lightly of would be admired by us, and might even become our prized companions or our valued helpers, if we could but learn their worth and acquire their confidence through the insight and the attractiveness of our sympathy.

Of one thing we may be sure: that that which can be known of another’s soul, and of another’s character, and which can be understood of another’s conduct, thought, and feeling, only through the insight of sympathy, is more worth knowing than all that appears on the surface. It is the best as well as the deepest life of another that is made known through the insight of our sympathetic understanding.

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