Higher Living Reflections

Understanding Others Incompletely

We can love completely without complete understanding. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs through It

Love and understanding emanate from different areas of the psyche. Love is an emotional response, understanding a rational process. Nonetheless, they are correlated.

In A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean tells the story of his family through the lens of fly fishing, which is a secular religion for the Macleans. While the family has an interesting story, its power rises from Norman’s younger brother Paul who can be considered an antihero.

The meaning of antihero is widely debated. I prefer the one set forth by my Muse, Denise, a friend and colleague who passed way too early. The antihero, according to Denise, is not one who is “against” the hero or doesn’t follow the hero’s path. He/she follows it although not in accordance with traditional rules and norms. However, despite his/her errant or aberrant ways, we find ourselves sympathetic to the character, whether real or fictional, and cheer him/her on. He/she might be one we call a “free spirit.”

Paul is/was such a man. Frustrating yet endearing. Paul walks to the beat of his drum only. Perhaps, Norman mythologizes him somewhat, but I sense what we learn of Paul is accurate. From the outset, the reader/viewer senses his fate won’t be pleasant; the only question is how.

Norman’s father is a Presbyterian minister, stoic yet understanding and compassionate. Still, he never gets over the tragedy that befalls his son.

In his last sermon, the Rev. Maclean states, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us.”

He wraps with a profound truth: “But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

Writing about Paul in this piece, I use both present and past verb tenses. The reason is that he is literary character as well as a real person who is no longer alive. So, while he serves as an intriguing character for readers and viewers to admire or dislike as we sort out our perspectives on human values, duties, and role models, Paul was also a real person who meant considerably to his family and even friends.

I was not one to be content to shortcut and repress that which prompted me to pick up and go to wherever the path led and to lead the life I was to have, not the one my tribe might have envisioned. Thus, I invariably love and respect free-spirited individuals, real and fictional, that walk to an alternative beat. I find myself wondering what drives them, where in their souls they find their zest for life. And I wonder if I have lost some of that passion.

It is the reason why characters such as Paul speak directly to my soul. But free-spiritedness should not be confused with self-destructive behaviors, at which Paul had become adept. It is that aspect of Paul that his father addresses, not the perfection he had become or exhibited with his mastery of fly fishing.

The question is how to admire and to encourage someone you are close with to follow his/her dream yet not to be stupid in the pursuit. But then, sometimes that urge to self-destruct is so innate that it seems nothing you do or offer seems to help. The reason is that the individual does not want or cannot accept your help for whatever reason, and that is where the Rev. Maclean’s maxim comes into play:

“Love completely without complete understanding.”

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  • Dawn Janov
    April 14, 2021 at 12:22 am

    Well written, Jerry.
    Growing up, I was always following my own path. My mother was a very social person and definitely could not understand why I wanted to go to Colorado and work on a dude ranch wrangling horses after college and two years working for a financial company. She would say to me “I don’t understand how you can be a daughter of mine.” Then she bought me my first saddle for my new adventure, padded seat and all. I’ve lived so many lives, with so many adventures. Now that I have children and grandchildren, I understand my parents even more. One of my favorite books by Gibran, and especially his take on children. The last sentence says it all. “Love completely without complete understanding.” Oh, that our politicians could understand these words. Ha.

  • Dawn Janov
    April 14, 2021 at 12:30 am

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.

    Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

    April 14, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    HELLO, and how do you always know and use the material I love the most. My favorite line in book is “HE WAS BEAUTIFUL.” I taught this for years and had kids read the book first and then watch the Brad Pitt fly fish which is incredible film. I have seen the film many times because it is also good. Athough McClean’s last page is the real deal. I love you so much. You are an amazing person and “Beautiful” yourself. Hope to see you soon.

  • Melanie Mulhall
    April 15, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    Beautiful and profound, Jerry. And appropriate at this time. There has been so much divisiveness within the past few years, and the feelings people have about Covid and what to do about it seems to be the latest thing to polarize. We don’t have to agree with another’s path, but it is helpful to love them without complete understanding.

  • Rick Posner
    April 16, 2021 at 2:46 am

    Why is this so hard for us to do?! I appreciate people who follow their hearts but not at the expense of others. The idea of Colin Wilson’s existential hero who does just what she/he likes has always been abhorrent to me. There has to be a balance between personal and social responsibility…in my book anyway.

  • Laurel McHargue
    April 21, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    “And I wonder if I have lost some of that passion.”

    The boundaries imposed on us as we age happen subtly. It’s not that we (you) lose our passion. Rather, we make more mature decisions. Maturity can certainly dampen passion, but I’d like to think it helps us live longer! I’ve recently wondered what made me stop practicing handstands. When did it “happen”? Did it actually happen, or did my priorities change over time? Some combination of both, I’m sure.

    And now I’ve tempted to launch my feet over my head against a wall (because I’m not sure I could even do a forward roll anymore)!

    Thanks for making me think! I love you.