"More than anything else, we want to love and be loved," says a tablet on the wall at Shalom Mountain, the retreat center I've called "home" in one way or another since 1997.
A corollary to that core understanding could be phrased this way: "we want to understand and be understood." We all know the frustration of not understanding another's behavior, motives, or beliefs, or having our own behavior, motives, or beliefs misunderstood.
There's a fundamental problem standing in our path, though, a problem not unlike the problem of an astrophysicist: what we're trying to understand is too vast to understand.
Think about it this way: if you take a good, close look at what's going on inside of you -- decades of thoughts, emotions, memories, all swirling around and interacting with each other in vastly complex ways, producing more thoughts, emotions, and memories, all arising moment-to-moment -- you could conclude that your interiority is infinite, or at least very nearly so. In a sense, the vast entity known as a "galaxy" pales in complexity to the immensity of a human's interior processes.
So, when you see me get up from my desk, walk outside my back door, sit down, and gaze at the desert, while that action looks simple, the full understanding of that activity would require a knowing of me that is as vast as the forces that led me to take that particular action in that particular moment.
Of course, the vastness of that complexity doesn't keep us from trying to understand. "He'd been at his desk for a while and needed to move his body," might be your feeble effort at peering into the interior of that walk out the back door. "He loves watching birds," might be another. "He knows that he thinks better if he takes occasional breaks from his work" might be a third. The truth is, while there may be truths in each or all of these, my apparently simple action has roots that go back to my childhood and a zillion tendrils that cannot be traced, even by me, much less by an outside observer.
So what? Why should the fact of the infinitude of my interiority, or the infinitude of your interiority, matter at all?
Let's start with humility. Think for the moment of the young astronomer, one who is fascinated by but ignorant of the celestial bodies she sees overhead at night. She starts to dig into their composition, their behavior. The more she knows, the more she realizes that there is a lot more to these points of light than she saw in the first place. In fact, should she go all the way in on this topic, she might spend the rest of her life in increasing levels of awe, amazement, and, yes, humility. What she thought was true at 10 was false compared to what she knew by 20, which was minuscule compared to what she understood at 40.
We are like that, you and I. Our interiors are vast, seemingly infinite. Perhaps even actually infinite.
Now, when we're being quite self-aware, we might actually tap into that realization when it comes to ourselves. To take my example of strolling out the back door to gaze at the Tucson Mountains, if I take a moment, I can feel into the complexity of that choice. I can trace a few of the tendrils back to an aphorism of my grandfather Sim, or the wonder in my mother's eyes when we were backpacking in Wyoming, or my worry about climate change. Behind every tendril I can feel the presence of a thousand more, all woven into an infinitely complex tapestry that is my interior experience. I may not figure out all the forces behind my action, but I can at least know that it is the product of my vast interior.
Recognizing, and even honoring, the complexity of what it is to be me, when viewed from the inside, just might allow me some self-compassion that might not be available if I conclude that all my actions can be reduced to simple explanations. In the hysterical "Stop It!" sketch by Bob Newhart, we are reminded of the harshness of oversimplification of human behavior. Newhart's character, a therapist, responds to every one of his patient's plea for help in avoiding foolish behavior with the phrase "stop it!" A perfect, and absurd, illustration of how wrong-headed it is to ignore the complexity of our own mental, emotional, and spiritual processes.
If I were to allow myself that realization as it applies to you and your infinite interiority, what are the implications? If I cannot reduce your behavior, your speech, down to a few simple ideas, but instead attribute them to your own infinite interior, what might happen?
First of all, I might find myself a bit more humble about my theories of your behavior. I might doubt that I've got you figured out. In other words, I might find some humility creeping into how I think and feel about you.
Second, if I acknowledge that your interior is so vast that my theories are certainly incomplete at best, I am likely to find myself more curious about you. I might ask you authentic questions, questions not designed to set up my next sentence, but instead, questions that actually will help me to see into your amazing process. The question "tell me more" might come up in our conversation with greater frequency.
I came across a new word a few weeks ago: "sonder". Apparently, the word is not merely new to me, but is of recent origin. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows poetically defines the word this way:
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
I might go with this simpler definition for sonder:
The realization that your interior, like mine, is infinite.
If we were to keep in mind such a realization, to hold sonder in our hearts and minds as we go through our lives, what might happen to our conversations, to our relationships? Is it possible that we might not even be more compassionate with ourselves and others, but that we might bring something akin to awe and even devotion to ourselves and others?
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was getting at this, I believe, when he wrote,
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
My invitation is broader than "the secret history of our enemies." In fact, it goes beyond even the secret history of other humans. What if we take sonder all the way out, and realize the infinite interiority of ourselves, each other, all creatures, and all of Creation?
What might we find in that kind of realization? What would happen if we actually experienced the galaxies within ourselves and each other?
At least that's part of my guess as to what would happen. How about you? What do you guess would happen?