Monday, April 2, 2012

The Need to be Understood

What's with all these tweets and twitters? These kids are just writing about what they had for lunch. Why do they think they're so important that everyone wants to know what they had for lunch?

There goes your crazy old uncle. Complaining about kids these days and how they're spending all their time on the internet trying to get a million hits on their viral video and get everyone to read about everything they know. It's a time-honored tradition. I don't presume to know how far back in history, but I know it goes back a long time. Each generation is baffled and confused by the generation that comes after them. We put minimum effort into making sense of their actions but are fast and loose with accusations and condemnations. In the 60's and 70's: all these kids care about is sex and drugs. In the 80's and 90's: these kids don't care about anything at all, except being different and feeling sorry for themselves. And the great misconception about my generation and even more so about the generation coming up after mine:

All these kids just want to be famous for doing nothing.

They just want to take pictures of themselves hanging out with friends or take videos of themselves doing something stupid and get a million people to look at it. It makes sense if you're looking for a quick and easy answer to behaviors you don't understand. We do spend an inordinate amount of time sharing information about ourselves on various forms of social networking. There was a study done recently (which I don't have a citation for and therefore can only use as an anecdotal reference) where people of varying ages were given cameras and told to start filming. Almost everyone over 30 filmed the world around them, while almost everyone under 30 filmed themselves. This is something that is very clearly happening, but the misconception is in the assumption of fame as a motive.

It would be presumptuous of me to try and speak for my whole generation, but I would like to suggest that our actions aim more to serve a basic human need: the need to be understood. It's not exclusive to my generation. Everyone is constantly seeking to be understood, whether they know it or not. It's one of the main purposes of any relationship. Think of your best friends. What do you like about them? They get you. You can talk to them about topics you can't discuss with others. You reveal more of yourself to them than you do to others, because they understand and relate. And that draws you to spend more time with them, and place a higher value on the time you spend.

Friendships are one way of being understood. These crazy internets that the kids are into are another way. Consider how much of time spent on the internet is spent on interacting with friends. You might dub this an inferior form of interaction, but that's a judgment call. But an equally important part of Facebook and Twitter and anything else in that vein is putting your ideas out there for scrutiny and (hopefully) affirmation.. You can create something and someone else can look at it, understand part of who you are, and give you a little thumbs up let you know that “hey, you're okay.”

You don't need to be an artist or a writer to find a means of expression. You don't have to create anything. When I hear a song that speaks to a deep or profound part of me, the first thing I want to do is find someone to share it with. I want someone else to hear it and confirm “Yes, Kevin, this song is as phenomenal as you think it is.” I want to find someone whose human experience is reflected through this song in the same way that mine is. And sometimes I'll do just that. I'll post a link to it on Twitter. And even if nobody acknowledges it, and even if I had no part in creating the message the song conveys, I'm putting a bit of myself out there.

I learned a new word today: grok. It's a verb and it's stupid. It sounds terrible (because it is comes from a Martian language in a science fiction novel, though it's now part of English and permissible in Scrabble) and doesn't match its meaning at all, which is to understand something profoundly and intuitively. It's a beautiful meaning; it's the way I feel about the song in the above example. I grok that hypothetical song. As true as that is, it sounds stupid and as a result I will never use it outside this essay. Yet I share it because it demonstrates something about me as a person. I'm a sucker for obscure new words; any words, really. I'm like the lady in the YouTube video who wants to hug every cat but she can't; I want to know every word but I can't. And I want to find ways to use those words. Not to make me sound more intelligent. Simply because words are fun. Words are toys that never break or run out of batteries and can be combined in endless combinations.

If you read that last paragraph and agreed with it you are helping me achieve my goal, and I am helping you with yours. You are validating part of my personality through understanding. You are confirming that the way I feel is not unusual or strange. I am not the only one who feels this way, and neither are you. Writing it out like this it sounds more desperate than it is; I didn't intend for it to sound that way. But we do all have a basic, unspoken need for someone to say “Yes, the way you feel is correct and I feel that way too.”

The original point of this was to explain why my generation does what it does. Our intention of being understood is no different from other generations, it's just expressed differently. In the past people relied more on direct person-to-person contact, building lasting relationships. We value that, too, but perhaps we're not as good at building them. So maybe our methods are less substantial and fleeting, but they work the same. I'll write this meandering, caffeine-fueled essay in my blog, then link to it on Facebook and hope it doesn't garner too much ridicule from people I know. You might post pictures of you and friends; I was here and I did this and this is who I am. You might write a song and post it on YouTube. Or write a song and sing it to yourself. Or call your mother and tell her about your long, tough day. All different means to the same end. All trying to prove that you are not the only one.


  1. We have talked about this and I agree. Everyone has that basic human need to be understood, because without others' approval it is difficult to feel your existence is justified. We are all lonely souls seeking any kind of understanding, no matter how shallow it may be. In my eyes the opposite of feeling understood is feeling lonely, and nobody wants to be alone. We reach out to other people by any means possible, and our generation, (and more so the following generations)'s most convenient way to achieve that is by typing up a sentence, phrase, or paragraph (or in your case an essay) and hitting enter. I don't think that's crazy or selfish at all, just as long as it doesn't lead to an avoidance of human interaction. And yes, reading your post affirms my beliefs as well, and makes me feel less alone. So it does become a collaborative effort.

  2. Oh and brilliant use of the cat video in your little anecdote