When we perceive or sense that there is an imprisoned soul behind every human being, then our love naturally goes toward it.
By Roberto Assagioli, from the Assagioli Archive in Florence, Doc. #24213,[i]Original Title: Comprendere gli Altri. Translated and edited with notes by Jan Kuniholm
- Abstract by Jan Kuniholm: The main cause of friction and struggles between individuals and groups is lack of understanding. By nature we tend to condemn what we do not understand; we see how others do this, but don’t we do the same? Lack of understanding is harmful but does not always arise from antagonism. It also arises between people who love each other and between parents and children. Love must be wise, for without understanding one cannot avoid doing harm. This is difficult. Each individual is a complicated interweaving of innumerable dissimilar elements, many not visible on the surface. Each individual must be treated differently, and the stereotypical advice that many people are always ready to give is very often inappropriate. The difficulty of rightly understanding and effectively helping others becomes even greater in cases where the other person is in a state of crisis. What we have said about others is also true about ourselves. We can be greatly helped by the new spiritual psychology that is being developed. If we consider ourselves and others as “souls” seeking to manifest themselves, then everything is transformed in us and around us. There is an essential unity of all souls and also differences in quality between them. They belong to different groups and types with different attributes and qualities. To deeply understand others “from within,” one must use intuition and spiritual “identification.” The effects of loving understanding are supremely beneficial, creative and directly evokes the truest and best part of others, their soul.
If we try to discover the causes of the frictions and struggles that so upset and cause individuals and groups to suffer, we find that one of the main ones is lack of understanding. Many harmful words and actions that are commonly attributed to wickedness, are instead due to lack of understanding.
We are by nature inclined to disparage and condemn what we do not understand, and prejudices, biases and antagonisms easily arise from this critical and negative attitude. This happens among individuals, among nations, among races and even among those who, claiming to be religious, should set an example of love and fraternity more than others.
A typical example of this attitude is given to us by the Russian word niemetz, which designates the Germans. The original meaning of this word is “mute,” which shows that the ancient Russians regarded a foreign people who did not speak their language as “dumb.” To us this seems primitive; but don’t we do something similar when we consider “meaningless” anything that is not in agreement with our views, and when we do not know how to recognize a truth if it is expressed in terminology other than our own? [i]
Lack of understanding is harmful, not only because it makes the one who does not understand hostile, but even more so in that it arouses a stronger hostility, a bitter resentment in the one or those who feel misunderstood. As Keyserling[ii] says, “nothing wounds more deeply than misunderstanding, for misunderstanding means denial of the identity of the other.” Thus is created a long chain of mutual misunderstanding, animosity and strife, with all the suffering that comes with it.
But lack of understanding is not always associated with antagonism or lack of sympathy; on the contrary, it can coexist with intense and passionate love — or what is generally called such. The most common example of this fact is offered by the relationships between parents (and particularly between mothers) and their children. There are fathers and mothers who tenderly love their children, who work tirelessly and make great sacrifices for them, and yet at the same time do not realize what is going on in the souls of their loved ones, do not understand at all what their truest and most vital needs are. This blind love not infrequently has harmful and sometimes disastrous consequences, and if those who unconsciously are the cause of it could realize this, they would be appalled: we are dealing with mutilated lives. This must be sincerely and courageously looked at in the face.
We must resolve to abandon the old sentimental idea that love alone is sufficient; we must recognize that there are various species of love, and that a blind love, however well-intentioned and ready for sacrifice, does not prevent us from making mistakes and harming our loved ones. We must realize that love must be a seer — must be imbued with wisdom — in order to really fulfill its mission to help and satisfy those who are its object.
Without understanding, therefore, one cannot avoid doing harm. But we must not be too harsh with those who don’t understand; rather, we must understand them too! Complete understanding of another human being is far from easy: in fact it is often very difficult. Each individual is a complicated interweaving of innumerable dissimilar elements that have very different origins, that exist at various psychic levels, and that act and react to each other, forming a new and unique combination in each person.
Moreover, not all the psychological elements that constitute the individuals we seek to understand are visible “on the surface,” so to speak. Many of them are deeply hidden in the unconscious and we can infer their existence only from indirect and occasional expressions. But that is not enough; that combination of elements is not static: new elements continually enter into it, while others break away from it, and still others are transformed by their own organic process of development and transmutation. Thus the human being we attempt to understand is constantly changing in protean fashion right before our amazed gaze.
Since each individual represents a new and unique problem, the solution to the problem must also be new and unique. Thus each individual must be treated differently. To use a mathematical analogy, the “individual psycho-algebraic formula” requires a new integration in each case. It is therefore clear that the stereotypical advice that many people are always ready to give, whether requested or not, is very often inappropriate and, even if offered with the best intentions, can be confusing and misleading.
Against the insidious tendency to advise there is an effective remedy: careful reading — followed by sincere examination of conscience — of the pages in which Manzoni[iii] sketches the type of Donna Prassede,[iv] that are full of the richest humor.
The difficulty of rightly understanding and effectively helping others becomes even greater in cases where the person with whom we are dealing is in a state of crisis or inner darkness. Under such conditions psychic elements may arise from the lower unconscious. Actually it is not a bad thing that this surfacing occurs, since those elements can thus be better known, mastered and transmuted (indeed they are purposely provoked in neuropsychic patients by special methods in psychotherapy). But those periods of crisis are very distressing for those going through them, and give rise to wrong and unfair impressions in those who observe only their external manifestations. We must therefore learn to recognize such cases and refrain more than ever from judging and condemning.
Everything we have said about others is, to a great extent, also true about ourselves; here, too, deep understanding is necessary, and it often presents no less difficulty. When dealing with ourselves we do indeed have more elements and more data at our disposal; but we are also more easily likely to judge in a way that is not dispassionate and impartial. While we are inclined to judge others too unfavorably, we tend instead to be very lenient toward ourselves, toward our own shortcomings and faults, for which we find all sorts of justifications and excuses! There is, however, a minority (not a small one) who err in the opposite direction: people tormented by an excessive sense of inferiority, guilt and self-devaluation, that oppresses and paralyzes them.
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Let us see in what ways we can develop and cultivate loving understanding.
We can be greatly helped by psychology, and especially by the new spiritual psychology that is being developed. Psychological science is going through a crisis, but it is a constructive crisis: a struggle to overcome its limitations. The existence of parapsychological faculties, of spiritual powers, and of a higher Self or Soul, are beginning to be recognized by a growing number of open-minded scientists, by many thinkers and scholars. It is beginning to be admitted that intuition is a direct and genuine means of knowledge; and that spiritual illumination and inspiration come from a higher level of the unconscious: the superconscious.
We can therefore trust that the existence of the spiritual Self, of the soul, as a permanent and independent Reality, will be admitted as a well-demonstrated fact [in psychology], although — certainly — not one that is directly experienced by everyone. This recognition may have incalculable consequences, completely changing our attitude toward ourselves and others.
For if we consider ourselves and others as we really are, i.e., as “souls” seeking to manifest themselves through more or less imperfect, blind and rebellious personalities; if we recognize that this is the immediate purpose of our earthly existence; if, moreover, we realize that souls are not separate and isolated entities, but are united with each other and with the universal Spirit; then everything is transformed in us and around us. Then we perceive or sense that behind every human being there is an imprisoned soul, and our love naturally goes toward it. Then we realize how criticism, contempt, jealousy and antagonism are fundamentally wrong, and how the only right, good and reasonable thing is to cooperate with another’s soul by giving it our love and trying to understand its problems and struggles.
However, the essential unity of all souls does not exclude the fact that there are differences in quality between them, and that they belong to different groups and types, each of which reflects and expresses one or another of the attributes and qualities of Divine Life. Added to this diversity between souls are the great differences in psychological and biological constitution existing between individual human beings, and also those differences that are due to the sex, nation and race to which each person belongs.
All these differences are the cause of innumerable misunderstandings and conflicts. It is therefore necessary to study those differences serenely and impartially, so as to realize their nature, origin and value, and thus come to understand and appreciate every human quality, every psychological type, individual and collective.
Such study forms the object of various branches of psychology: individual and “differential” psychology, also called “characterology;”[v] the psychology of the sexes; and ethnic psychology. These are sciences that are still in the making but can already offer useful data.
But to deeply understand others “from within,” so to speak, a purely objective and analytical study is not enough; one must use intuition and spiritual “identification.” With this, one comes at some time to truly experience another person’s life, to make it one’s own, and thus to feel and understand it in a full, loving, brotherly way.
This spiritual identification is quite different from the emotional identification that is often produced between people who love each other passionately; the latter is blind, absorbing, exclusive and demanding; the former, on the other hand, is clairvoyant, free of attachment and disinterested.
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The effects of loving understanding are supremely beneficial. It is creative; like a vivid, warm ray of sunshine, it produces inner development and fosters the expression of those toward whom it is directed and whom it penetrates with its subtle and powerful influence. It directly evokes their truest and best part, their soul.
Those who feel understood in this way open up, blossom, and sometimes are almost magically transformed. Their tense and contracted inner attitude of “defensiveness” melts away; their deeper life naturally comes to the surface, and thus the individual realizes — at one and the same time — as much of his own unsuspected possibilities as of the meanness and emptiness of certain personal “gifts” he often takes pleasure in.
Thus it happens not infrequently that a person, finding himself with someone by whom he feels himself “lovingly” understood, makes a spontaneous confession of his own deficiencies and “sins,” and makes judgments about himself of which he would have been bitterly offended if they had been made by others in a critical and admonishing tone.
This immense power for good of loving understanding should arouse a strong resolve to acquire it, and to that end — as with other spiritual achievements — to do two things: to cultivate it directly, and to remove the obstacles that prevent or make its expression difficult. Therefore we must strive to develop, on the one hand, intuition, sympathy and spiritual vision; and on the other hand, disinterestedness, self-forgetfulness and emotional detachment.
Then we will know how to understand and love our “brothers and sisters in humanity” with a wise love, a generous love, a love that leaves the giver and the receiver spiritually free.
[i] This sentence may be a reference to 20th century “logical positivist” philosophers such as A.J.Ayer, B. Russell and L. Wittgenstein, and others, who asserted that metaphysical and other statements that did not conform to their own definitions of science, verification, and logic were “meaningless.” Such assertions were also used by “positivist” psychologists who rejected psychosynthesis and other transpersonal approaches to understanding human beings. —Ed.
[ii] Hermann von Keyserling (1880-1946), Baltic German philosopher and author, founder of the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt, Germany, from whose writings Assagioli quoted liberally throughout his career. Source of this quotation is unknown. —Ed.
[iii] Allessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) was an Italian poet, novelist and philosopher.
[iv] In Manzoni’s 1842 novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), which is considered a masterpiece of world literature, Don Ferrante is a phony intellectual and erudite scholar who believes the plague is caused by astrological forces. Donna Prassede, Don Ferrante’s wife, is an opinionated busybody. —Ed.
[v] In English this would probably be called “psychology of personality.” —Ed.
[i] This essay has been taken from a typed manuscript in the Assagioli Archives. Other versions with slightly different wordings are also to be found in the Archives in doc.s #23146, 23147, 23149 and 24265.—Ed.