Monday, December 28, 2009

Do You Really Understand?

I listened carefully from the other room where I was enjoying time alone with my one year old grandson, Patrick,who kept up a steady string of very meaningful blurble . Christmas occasions offer a cacophony of words and sounds. From the unrestrained and gleeful shrieks of small children who have discovered the bounty left behind by "Santa", to the animated adult banter accompanying a game of Scattergories. There are warm words for family and friends and heartfelt expressions of appreciation for gifts given out of love. Sometimes there is a tearful outburst from an exasperated child, often accompanied by a yawn. And then there are the inevitable "discussions", that might never take place normally, during which voices are raised and opinions expressed in more dramatic and emphatic terms than might otherwise be the case. Blame it on the annual peaking of expectations, or the prevalence of liquid courage, but this season as the amazing potential to highlight our embarrassing lack of discipline when it comes to the use of words.

Perhaps this is why Christmas day left me thinking about words; specifically, words to avoid in the context of Parkinson's disease.

At the top of the list are the supposedly sympathetic words, "I understand". These words are almost always inaccurate, and often communicate exactly the opposite of what they mean. How often have you heard that phrase and silently reacted, "Oh no you do not!"?  How can someone really understand the physical manifestations of the ever-dogged PD? Even some of us who are experiencing this neurological nightmare have difficulty understanding others who share it . This phrase intended as an expression of attempted empathy is truly a presumption; a facile, throwaway line that betrays our ignorance, and sometimes our arrogance. In fact, it may be unintentionally dismissive of the person's unique experience and feelings. While I fully acknowledge that the speaker's intention in using these 4 syllables is rarely to harm the hearer, these words can easily be hurtful. Is not it more honest to admit, "I cannot possibly fully understand your circumstances... feelings... pain... fears..."?

"I understand" is a statement of fact, like saying, I understand Einstein's theory of relativity".  Applied to another person it is often, at best, an overstatement.  For myself, I certainly need to be more sensitve to my use of such phrases.

Since being diagnosed with Parkinson's almost 4 years ago now, I have become sensitive, even hypersensitive, to one simple fact: I will never fully understand another human being experience of loss or pain. Therefore, to say, "I understand" is to trivialize, or at the very least reduce that person tothe size of my own limited experience. I am not sure that healthy people understand this. Is it so easy to understand?

I know how it feels when someone who I know glibly draws his or her conclusions about my life by making that unsustainable objective statement, "I understand". My choice these days, when I am tempted to use that fateful phrase, is to replace it with, "I would really like to understand more. Is it okay if I ask you some questions to help me with that?"

All of us, even Patrick with his one-year-old gibberish, want to be understood. Rarely do people feel understood by being told that they are.


  1. Right on Bob!!!
    Love reading your thoughts.
    All the Best in 2010.

  2. Bob, I feel so blessed to have found this blog! Thankyou for allowing us to share in this journey with you. I love your many inspiring quotes. My dad has had PD for almost 10 years, and so much of what you have said has stirred my heart...I'll be visiting this site regularly!

  3. Thanks for the encouraging words. I sincerely hope to be an encouragement to others by sharing what I can. PD is a challenge, but it is one we can meet and learn from. And we can do this best together.