Recently, I saw an online meme saying: “The opposite of judgement is understanding.” And someone commented, “What about acceptance?”, to which the poster replied, “I can understand without accepting.”
I was about to reply, “I can understand and still judge” — but then I realised the ensuing discussion would require so much unpacking that I didn’t really have the time for it, much less in the social media format. I wanted to expand on it, though, and I find it is about words. Or, more correctly, about words, context, and the ever-present appreciation and interpretation of nuances which come quite naturally to most people in real-life situations, but so easily go missing in online settings.
I see it a lot online. This particular meme is not the point, obviously. It just makes a good illustration — because basically, we can read the words in it in two different ways, with two sets of eyes, as it were. Reading with the first set of eyes, we read from a kind of quantitative perspective, looking for hard definitions, and aiming to suss out differences of opinion. This is a very reasonable perspective, considering the statement of fact that the meme technically is. When we approach the words that way, we find all the ways where “understanding” is indeed not the opposite of “judgement”. We might think of someone who has done something despicable, and who has since provided an explanation (or excuse) for their behaviour which we can fully logically grasp, but which we do not agree with and consider, well, despicable. So we understand — as in, it computes. And we still judge. Ergo, the meme doesn’t make sense.
Looking to connect rather than divide
Reading the words with the other set of eyes, we approach them differently. We understand that whoever wrote them want to make us notice something, which they expressed by holding up understanding as an opposite to judgement — and so we turn inwards, with a perspective that goes something like, If understanding is the opposite of judgement, what kind of understanding are we then talking about? We realise that there are multiple interpretations of this word; it doesn’t only mean that something makes rational sense, head-wise. It could also mean something more heart-related, which we, for lack of a better term, might perhaps call “grounded understanding”. This is understanding in a way that looks to connect rather than divide (which does not mean to disregard facts or turn blind eyes to disagreements — but it does mean wanting to first establish which seeming disagreements are in fact such, and which are merely about interpretation).
This set of eyes doesn’t settle for the quick-on-the-draw, battlefield perspective where the one-single-definition interpretation is the “correct one” — despite fact that this makes the original statement look weird or wrong (not to mention, possibly not the as intended). This set of eyes stretches deeper, into the compassion of the heart — not because we are soft, or because we want to agree with everyone, but because we wish to truly communicate. This is an understanding anchored on the inside, where we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, perhaps even with a sense of compassion that they themselves lack, for themselves or others. This yields a different way to read the word “understanding” — and it is, indeed, the opposite of judgement.
Interpretation and nuance
My point is that words in our everyday language have nuances, and moreover, that they need nuances for the language to be useful. I suppose some people would argue that words are supposed to be nuance-free and have absolute definitions. I think, however, that if we were suddenly thrust into a world where this were the case, we’d soon be enormously frustrated. We all rely, and language itself relies, on these nuances — and more heavily so than we realise. It’s just that sometimes, something within us seems to be in the mood for controversy and stubbornly refuses to play along, so that we can have something to argue about. And other times, it might be insecurities that have us reaching for absolutes, scared of any ambiguity that might leave us wrong-footed. Whichever is the case, though, the defended stance of the first set of eyes makes it hard to communicate efficiently.
Words in the Enneagram world
Now let’s move this whole dynamic into the Enneagram world, where a lot of the time we are attempting to describe, or understand, different categories. Our current times call for snippets, sound-bites, memes, and keywords — and so all these things are produced, either in efforts to distinguish yourself as a teacher with something short, snappy, and to the point, or to make others’ descriptions easily digestible, or just to inform. In one list, we might read that Threes compare themselves to others a lot. In another, we read that Fours are the masters of comparison, inevitably raising discussion about who is right and who is wrong. In one meme, connection is used to describe aspects of the sexual instinct; in another context, the same word is used in the description of social adaptation, possibly accompanied by a contemptuous sneer in the general direction of anyone using it in the former way. And so on and so forth. And this happens in an online climate, where response-times are short, tempers quickly run high, people compete to be “right”, and the old-fashioned, heart-informed set of eyes is not the norm.
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to understand?”
The old question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” springs to mind, only with this slight twist. Because to a large extent I think it is our urge to “be right” that trips up the curiosity that might have otherwise lead to actual understanding; true communication, target than just “talking at” each other.
When we come across seemingly opposing statements, it is wise to remember that neither is necessarily wrong. (Obviously, we might encounter stuff that is incorrect, so it’s not that everything we see online is valid. Also, on a few counts, different teachers really oppose one another. But my point is that a lot of seemingly opposite teachings are not necessarily mutually exclusive.)
Back to the old mantra: Let it percolate
And most of all, we need to keep in mind that none of this, if we want to understand it in a way that is truly useful, can be learned through memes, or lists of attributes. That integration takes time. That words, while the primary tool for sharing this information, will only be helpful to the extent that we can hear them in context — and that this context might not even be fully developed within us yet. (And as we’ve seen, neither is it necessarily provided where we find the information, so we might have to go in search of it ourselves.)
And then, to complicate matters further, of course there are also contexts where layman’s language and professional terms differ (which we might not think of if we slosh about on social media and do not really know the linguistic home turf of the people we are speaking to), and where words have changed their meaning slightly over the years. So there are a lot of reasons to ask and probe, rather than just dismiss.
As it happens, I actually wrote a blog article a couple of years ago about the use of “comparison” as a descriptor for Threes/Fours, specifically, which you can find here. Also, I have one coming up on the concept of connection when discussing the instinctual drives. Over and over, I find myself drawn to exploring these distinctions, offering this much-needed context to the best of my ability, and directing our attention back towards truly learning something, rather than just debating language. To me, that is when we can understand, deeply and in all three centres of intelligence, what type, instinct and other such features even are. And, also in my opinion, it is only then that the Enneagram starts becomes truly helpful ❤️
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Of course, there are situations where words really will make a crucial difference. There are contexts that a word is actually incorrect. This can be a sign that the speaker has actually misunderstood something (such as when someone refers to the sexual instinct as “emotional intimacy”). And sometimes, someone will decide to use language that just isn’t the norm, creating confusion that way. If I’m referring to something green and consistently describe it as yellow, everyone would probably agree that I’d better use green instead, as my current choice of words makes no sense and just confuses people.