Between Knowing and Understanding

Is there a space between knowing and understanding? Not if we equate understanding with the power to control.

“We understand.” That was the last message tapped out on the cold steel of the pressure hull of the submarine S-4 off Wood End.


He’d never heard them speak, just had secondhand accounts, by way of the newspaper and the gossip of friends; not of their words spoken, just a relation of messages tapped with a hammer or a wrench against the intractable steel vault that held them. Received as dots and dashes by a diver standing on the coarse sand one-hundred feet below that spot.

“How long will you be now?” “There are six, please hurry.” “Will you be long now?”

These questions, so painfully obvious, had been repeated whenever contact had been made. The emotion, the lives containing them trapped inside their steel tomb, were coded into taps, then translated back into words, repeated, written down, repeated again. Yet somehow the humanity they contained had been communicated with a poignancy that tears at the heart.

Finally, their last message,

“We understand.”
What did that mean? There’s a whole world of meanings held in that simple phrase. It’s surprising, in a way. It’s so clear and painfully obvious in another. These were young men, perhaps boys. They were used to doing what they were told. That’s how they got there, following orders.

“Yes, Sir!” was a phrase, an attitude ingrained in them throughout their training. The same compulsion, freely internalized, that had taken so many over-the-top in the Great War. Yet, it seems to say something else entirely.

Its like a benediction. A blessing from the other side. Almost like a message of what lies on the far side of that passage.

“We understand.”
In the end, we don’t know what that meant. We know we don’t, that we can’t, at least not so long as each of us has time to pass along its meaning to another before our own extinction. It holds their lives and their deaths inside it, a vessel not of cold, hard steel; but a gentle container, fragile, yet enduring, at least so long as there are people to hold the memory in their minds, their hearts.

“We understand.”

The tone that had carried it? Had it even been spoken? Or was it, like writing, just an intention in the mind passed through the hand and tapped out with an implement. This time, not typed, or scrawled, or patiently lined; but ciphered, beaten with an energy, a vehemence that might have belied, or transmitted, the urgency or resignation behind it. This also unknowable, even to the diver hearing the sound through his helmet, in the skin of his body, through his suit, in his bones. The act of writing in this case – is it always the case? – masking the emotion behind the words transmitted. Their intention not assisted by a tag, following the quotes.

“We understand.” They said…

We have no way of knowing. But somewhere inside us, as we lay awake at night, in the quiet; if we recall their plight, and these last words – were they a consensus? The thoughts of their leader? A reflexive, childlike demurring to authority,

“Its time to go now son.” A mother might have said.

The answer from the sleepy little boys,

“We understand.”

Excerpt from Chapter 21, “…Gracie,” Something for Nothing


What do we mean when we say “we understand” something? Perhaps what we mean is that we believe a certain way, we have a certain faith in something that connects itself to what concerns us.

This is hidden behind a pseudo-rational explanation. This is what Vernon Howard calls our “reel” life, as in a movie reel. It’s the story we’d like to be in, the one that holds together according to a narrative we believe in, although we may never actually be aware of it directly. It forms the ground on which our sense of reality is perched. We believe that what we understand is what we know.

How would that work? It would require conditions we are learning just don’t exist. It would require that there be an objective – and verifiable – external reality that we can know by testing it, analyzing parts, and building up solid conclusions that would support step-by-step plans we could use to meet specific goals that would meet our best interest…. Do we need to go on? If this “logic” is unassailable to you, there’s a stock market out there ready and willing to sell you shares in this sort of future.

Understanding. The difference between a stance and a place to stand has preoccupied me for some time. In “reel” life we are only ever looking for a stance we can take on, one that’s “convincing.” There is only a dark vertiginous void where questions of truth or authenticity, beyond the usefulness of their appearance, might lay. This is the world of easy-power-fed dreams, “The American Dream™” peddled around the world, the faith of modernism unquestioned.

If we drop the belief in stances, and look to find where we stand, we enter into a different relationship with the world. We find that if we stand “here” then we stand “under” certain things. As silly and simplistic as this may sound it does seem to have something significant to say about what it means to understand.

If understanding comes out of standing under, then there is a radically different connection between understanding and power. Instead of understanding as a Promethean tool to gain and leverage power, it becomes a Damoclean realization of all that has power over us.

Prometheans will fain a frustrated collapse into befuddlement at this. “What’s the point?!” They cry. “If I’m not wielding power I must be a victim of someone else’s power!” They insist.

Is this the only choice? Is this a false choice?

It’s an enormous question. To a significant extent the force of what we believe does make things true. This returns us to the limits of our imagination. The purpose of these ruminations is to try to digest and perhaps stretch our sense of what is possible so that this understanding might open us to different ways of perceiving our reality. These differences we tend to assume are meant to make it easier for us to change our conditions. This aspiration may simply be a sign of how hopelessly mired we are within our modernist mindset. It may be that this change only affects how we face impinging realities that remain beyond our abilities to affect. That realization, in itself, would be a tremendous stretch from within our habitual stance where we expect everything and anything to bow to our insatiable will!

Those sailors on the S-4 were swept by the force of circumstance out of their customary world. The security they felt there had been in great part an illusion, particularly that it was possible to dive below the sea and ascend again at will, that their machine and their procedures were “fool-proof.” That they could maintain the illusion of a “normal” life while carrying out such risks. It proved to be that their position was untenable. The “unthinkable” struck once more, and this time, it took them down with it. Most died quickly, relatively so at least; but those last few had days of darkness, cold, and failing air to contemplate what was happening to them. Is it just a polite turn of phrase that their last words, so laboriously transmitted were, “We understand?”

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

4 thoughts on “Between Knowing and Understanding

  1. A heartbreak. I did not know this story. More lives lost as part of the Drug War, the failed alcohol offensive. As the ship of civilization sinks, will people “understand”?


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