Why It’s Cool To Be Misunderstood

by MATT STOKES | SEPTEMBER 21, 2010

I know you’ve got a God-shaped hole
Cleaning out your heart full of soul.

-Wilco

The time I most vividly recall feeling just terrible for somebody happened about two years ago. The person in question was my sister, who would have been five years old at the time. My parents, my brother, and I were sitting in the kitchen talking one evening when my sister came in and tried to talk to us. She was trying to ask us a question, but we were doing that adult thing where you ignore the little kid who’s trying to interrupt you. She kept asking, getting more and more impatient as we ignored her, until finally my mom caved and asked her what she wanted.

My sister asked her question, but was so flustered it came out unintelligibly.

“What’d you say?” my mom asked her.

My sister repeated, but it still wasn’t clear what she was saying.

“I can’t understand you,” my mom said.

At that point my sister hurriedly left the room, an “F this!” expression firmly planted on her face.

Several minutes later, however, I walked by her bedroom and heard her crying. I walked in and saw that she was face down on her bed, sobbing into a pillow.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nobody understands me,” she said through the tears and snot.

I was startled. It almost seemed like it should be funny—Hey, my little sister turned into a depressed emo kid eight years early, awesome! Let’s get out the black nail polish!—but I also just felt bad for her. It’s hard to identify with that kind of pure, unadulterated frustration. It was heartbreaking to see. Had she been in a different setting I think I would have had an entirely different opinion, but since she was by herself and had no idea anybody could see or hear her, I felt like I was witnessing a rare display of completely unaffected emotion.

Even as kids we put on a show for others to make them understand how we feel (or how we want them to think we feel). The older we get, the more intense this affectation gets, but in this particular moment there was no affectation. And, weirdly, I think we are all trying to reestablish that kind of misery that only little kids feel. We want to feel alienated. We want to feel alone. We want to feel like nobody understands us.

I know this is true. But I’m not exactly sure why.

For some reason we immediately identify anybody who possesses contradictory qualities as “deep.” Wow, you know, Allen Iverson, he may be a party animal who’s up to no good and doesn’t like to practice and doesn’t respect the Game, and he goes out and drinks and parties all night every night… But he’s also a devoted father and husband. What a fascinating fellow. Or how bout this one: I know this guy, he’s a total self-centered prick. He cares for nobody but himself. He takes drugs and shoplifts from Ma n’ Pa hardware stores. And yet he also volunteers during the summer at a camp for disadvantaged children…

We’re obsessed with the Walking Contradiction. We equate the Walking Contradiction with Something Deeper. And people have been exploiting this for a long time to try and seem more interesting.

I tend to think people are neither good nor bad, neither assholes nor nice people… that we’re generally driven by impulses, and these impulses are difficult to understand and contextualize. But there’s this natural tendency we have to put everything, however complicated, into a logical pattern. So when other people try to pin down an explanation for our behavior we don’t like to acknowledge that we’re just driven by inane impulses. So we make affectations, and try to present ourselves as more complicated—and ultimately misunderstood—than it would initially seem we are. And if nobody understands you, that must mean you’re interesting.

It’s flawed logic. It ignores two things:

1. The world only knows about you and what you put out there for it to know. As such, if you are truly a misunderstood person, it’s your own fault and you lack basic social skills.

2. Nobody cares.

Let’s look at the latter point. We spend barely a fraction of the time thinking about other people that we do ourselves or, more accurately, the way others will perceive us.I)*This is the very definition of narcissism. If you recall the story of Narcissus, he was not obsessed with himself but with looking at his reflection in the water. We slave over our affected identities, and give no mind to how little other people actually pay attention.

I used to think the most fascinating person in the world was Rivers Cuomo. He’s my favorite musician of all time, and up until about 2008, he was a complete mystery. He rarely granted interviews and was essentially an eccentric recluse who would go years without releasing new music. But then a weird thing happened: Weezer started releasing a new album every year, Cuomo opened up to every publication that would listen, and then (I shudder) he started collaborating with Timbaland and Sugar Ray and whoever the hell B.o.B. is. And slowly, the more I heard what Rivers had to say, the more I realized how little he has to say. That he’s just a weirdo who writes pop songs. That there’s no hidden depth behind “Tired of Sex”… it’s just about a guy who gets too much poonanny.

And now I don’t find him as interesting. People have it wrong. Contradictions are not interesting. Mystery is. Don’t show that you’re a fantasy baseball nerd who also loves Minor Threat and follows the Dischord Records creed. No, just don’t say anything. People will reach their own conclusions.

And as for the first point: It’s not that people misunderstand us that’s unfortunate. It’s that there’s not actually anything to misunderstand. And this is actually a great thing. We dig our whole lives for meaning, for answers, for clues to understanding ourselves and each other. But there’s nothing to understand. There are no answers. There are only things too complicated for us to wrap our minds around. This is frustrating, because we like for everything to fit very clearly into a category. But things just don’t work that way. But at least we can go through our lives and constantly reinvent who we are. It’s not a terrible thing. It doesn’t mean we’re black holes, devoid of emotion or character. We just have no point.

Sort of like this blog post. And if you think maybe you’ve misunderstood the point of this post, you haven’t. There is no point. These are just the ramblings of a bitter, drunken ex-philosophy minor. That’s the internet for you.

Footnotes

Footnotes
I *This is the very definition of narcissism. If you recall the story of Narcissus, he was not obsessed with himself but with looking at his reflection in the water.