arts & creativity, book reflections, mental health & wellness, spiritual

I Am Understood: The Spirituality of Reading

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a book. Nothing unusual about that. But this time I read the last pages slowly, closed the cover gently, and — no joke — hugged the book to my chest with a sigh.

“I am understood,” I thought.

Maybe you’ve experienced this too. It seems several Twitter users have, based on the re-tweets and “likes” that my post about book-finishing received:

We want to be understood. I know I do.

I’m the introvert who watches Susan Cain’s TED talk over and over, because it’s just so darn relatable.

The single woman who sends her roommates Buzzfeed lists like “17 Things Only Single Women Will Understand” (made that one up, although it probably exists) — to which they reply “Haha, yes, that is SO us! The Internet always understands.”

When you live in an overlap, this may be especially the case.

The overlap of adolescence and intelligence and a touch of depression? I’ve taught teenagers before (and, yes, been that teenager before) for whom Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars really hit the spot. I even saw TFIOS bring a 15-year-old, acne-ridden boy to tears. Reportedly, there was an eyelash in his eye, not tears. But, behind that eyelash he was seeing that it’s OK to use big words and woo a girl and be a little scared while you’re at it.

The overlap of evangelical Christianity and liturgical traditions? (My overlap of choice lately.) This is why Robert Weber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Todd Hunter’s The Accidental Anglican, and Preston Yancey’s Tables In the Wilderness exist.

The overlap of spirituality, doubt, grace, feminism, or any combination thereof? (My overlap of choice pretty much always.) Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Addie Zierman, Anne Lamott, and Barbara Brown Taylor have been pretty understanding.

I realize that I’ve mostly cited non-fiction works, often memoirs, in the above paragraphs. But undoubtedly the same can be true of fiction. Anytime a character, real or imagined, lives a journey that in some way intersects our own, they can make us whisper: “I am understood.”

Why? Reading others’ stories can speak to some of our deepest desires: the desire to sense that my past is not too crazy and the desire to sense that my future is not too scary. If a character in a story experiences an abuse or loss or illness like you did once, you can know that it’s not “crazy”; it really does happen and it really is hard and you really can keep going. Or, if a character overcomes something that you hope to overcome in the future, you can know that it’s not impossible; she did it, so maybe you can too.

I hope you open a book and feel understood.

I hope you watch a movie, hear a sermon, tilt your head at a painting, and feel understood.

And I do hope you read this blog and feel understood. That might be my blogging goal for the year: to write things that make people feel understood. Whether you’ve felt depressed or hopeful, anxious or calm, accepted or rejected, ambitious or afraid of the future, committed to your faith tradition or questioning faith and tradition, whatever the case, I hope you’ll read my stories and see that I am too and say it with me: “I am understood.”   

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