“To be great is to be misunderstood”

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare at the screen. My heart is pounding so hard I can almost hear it, and I clench my fists as answers to this hateful email spring, rapid-fire, to my mind. In less than five minutes, I have a rebuttal I’m certain will destroy this man, thirty years my senior, who has, essentially, just called me a liar. I storm to my husband and use him as a proxy to deliver the tirade I’m certain will put this man in his place and fall, breathless, to the couch.

Jon stares at me for so long I finally snap, “What?”
Another pause. “Rina, what do you hope to accomplish by saying all that to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your goal?”
“Did you hear what I said? He didn’t understand anything I wrote! He’s basically calling me a liar!”
“Right. And it sounds like he’s already made up his mind. Do you think your response will make him change it?”
“No, but—”
“Then why write it?”

I’m too stunned to respond. The idea of letting this grave injustice go hadn’t occurred to me. Why would it occur to me? It’s absurd! I hate being misunderstood. I hate the idea of not defending myself. I could tear this man to shreds, if I wanted to—force him to see his stupidity. But just as no one has ever crawled out from under the weight of shame to become a better person, I have yet to see anyone cut by sarcasm move into greater humility and open-mindedness. Jon is right, and I can see clearly that the only loving response is none at all. And so, for the first time in my life, I choose not to respond. I choose to be misunderstood.

Years later, I can still feel the heat in my body when I think of that moment. Years later, I still think of how it would have felt to flay him, slowly—to peel back the flesh of his logic with the blade of my words and expose the soft underbelly of his slimy stupidity. (I’m really good at forgiveness.) It was a watershed moment for me. The first of hundreds, if not thousands, of times I have since allowed myself to be mistaken, misrepresented, and misunderstood. I still hate it. It still stings every time someone attributes incorrect motives to something I’ve said or done, and I often want to take up the sword of sarcasm and charge into battle. Sometimes I still do. But more and more often, I don’t. And sometimes, every now and then, on really good days, I even find ways to respond in love.

I am learning.

I am learning the value of allowing people to misunderstand. I am learning the value of being who I am, without asking permission or offering explanation. I am learning that the less concerned I am with the opinions of others the freer I am to be myself and the more peace and joy I have in my life. I am learning that the pain of judgment cannot begin to compare to the pain of not telling the truth or following my own heart. In the words of Liz Gilbert:

“People judge each other. It’s a favorite hobby of humans. Let people have their hobbies. Go in peace.”


(I was inspired to write this in response to a friend who asked [in a soon-to-be blog post of her own] “why would I subject myself to open vulnerability of my thoughts and feelings to the masses?” Because, my friend, as you are learning: truth is the path to freedom, and can only be navigated through vulnerability and the willingness to be misunderstood.
…And it’s SO worth it.)


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