The urge to comprehend

We can learn so much from our children.

Often, my young ones go through stages and demonstrate what is essential to human development, like here when my daughter learned to connect. Now she, at 19 months of age, has an urge to comprehend the world.

It began with language.


My pee-jay’ed daughter, mouth agape, pressed her pointer to my chest.

“Yes, I’m Dada.”


“Mama’s down stairs.”

“Dada.” She pointed again.

“Yes, I’m Dada.”

“Dada. Dada. Dada — ilk?”

“Yes, that’s your milk.”

She is hard to put to sleep nowadays. She doesn’t want to miss a thing. Her language is exploding from this burgeoning urge to comprehend.


So much to learn from someone so little.

The prayer of St. Francis shows me her urge is important for the spiritual development of adults.

12th century Italy thought it had it all comprehended. Like the rest of the Middle Ages, spiritual growth was stagnant. Those who were born to education received it. Those born to toil on farms — like the one owned by St. Francis’ cloth-merchant father — farmed. The Saint’s odyssey from privilege to poverty was revolutionary. Why choose a life devoid of material blessings if he were chosen by birth for prosperity?

St. Francis was ignited — much like my daughter — to seek “to understand, not be understood.”

They are both my current inspiration. It seems that all spiritual growth begins with that simple urge to comprehend something in a way we haven’t before.

A similar example of spiritual re-birth, and one of my favorites, is the life example of Malcolm X. Once a hustler and drug addict, Malcolm had a vision in prison which changed him. His urge to comprehend ignited. His cell was the only one on the block illuminated by a light bulb all night. Malcolm saw this as a sign from Allah to read everything he could get his hands on. In his autobiography, he described his urge to understand this way:

I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.”

I’ve read that Malcolm slept only four or five hours a night from the moment his soul awoke until his death. You would always find Malcolm with a book in his hand, craving to comprehend.


Malcolm died a martyr, Francis a saint.

I’m just an alcoholic and drug addict who’s trying to stay sober, but I can relate to what they went through.

When I first got sober, my urge to understand exploded. I realized that everything I knew had sieved through the deceptive filter of denial. What I thought about myself was wrong. Admitting I was an alcoholic felt like the first honest words I ever spoke. My soul ignited. Since then, I have obsessed over growing as a man — spiritually, emotionally, mentally.

I was told “Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.”

The black coffee drinkers told me “Shut up and listen.”

I learned, slowly, the need to understand, not be understood.

Seeing my daughter first shine in the light of knowledge made me wonder when and why I ever turned that light off. When and why did I resist the growth of my soul? By the time I hit bottom, I was immune to “learning my lesson.” There was nothing “sinking in.” You could tell me nothing I didn’t already know.

Why? I don’t have that answer.

But I do know — from my life’s experience — that in equal measure to the human desire for understanding, runs the desire for the comfort of close-mindedness. Like the yin to the yang, each strive to explore is counterbalanced by the greed to stay complacent.

History shows this. St. Francis lived in the Dark Ages, a time wedged between the cultural flourish of antiquity and the rational explosion of the enlightenment.

I am not a martyr. I am not a saint. I am not a prophet. I cannot conjure a vision of the future, or claim to know how our times will be received in the annals of history. But lately, I can’t shake the feeling that our greatest ills stem from the desire to be understood. We lack the urge to comprehend, to learn from and listen to each other.

I am a father. I am a husband. I am, above all, a man in recovery. Love and tolerance is my code. Whenever called upon to help another understand the nature of their disease, I will answer. I will, for survival, learn from my fellow human. I will foster my spiritual growth. And drawing from my daughter’s inspiration, I will cultivate the urge to comprehend.

12 Responses to “The urge to comprehend

  • Dwight Chapin
    1 year ago

    With great love and respect a thought is offered.

    Every person, every situation contains, goes through, yin and the yang in some way. Many of us never thought we could survive President Obama, we have and the Nation has. Many are concerned about President Elect Trump, not even giving him an opportunity to prove he can lead us. How closed minded can a person be and still consider themselves fair minded, open minded?

  • This one is killer. I didn’t know that story about Malcom X – really love the perceptive of taking the light as a sign to further his knowledge. The perspective is inspiring. I especially like when you are talking about your family and describing even the simplest moments.

  • Roger Lew
    1 year ago

    Thank you

  • This is one of my favourites, Mark. And that’s saying a lot, considering how fantastic your work is. From a writerly standpoint, it’s amazing how you pack so much in so little – something I need a LOT of work on (blather, blather, blather!) You hit all the notes and you encompass so much, covering so much territory, in only a few keystrokes. It’s brilliant.

    The message is th the key here, of course. I fully get this need to understand. At the same time I want to be understood! But that doesn’t often work in my favour. Like you, very early in my recovery it wasn’t about me or my drama – it was about learning about this affliction of mine and how to move through it like those who have walked the path before. It was the whole “shut up, listen and learn” deal. And it’s done me well.

    I love this one to bits, Mark. Thank you for this.


    A fellow non-prophet

  • Keep bringing “the light,” brother.

  • I sure needed to read this tonight!
    Thank you!

  • Finally got around to commenting (after re-reading this delightful essay once again). I believe the climax is found within this statement:

    “But lately, I can’t shake the feeling that our greatest ills stem from the desire to be understood. We lack the urge to comprehend, to learn from and listen to each other.”

    Ironically (and not surprisingly!) my little ditty I typed out on empathy deals with this very issue!! (As you had noticed). I think our need to be heard has grown so urgent because all of us seem to be dwelling in our own self-contained bubbles of existence. (A point that Damien’s fine blog post brought up as well.)

    It makes me reconsider Jung’s concept of synchronicity. That our #soberposse came up with these thoughts simultaneously says something to me—we’re more attuned to the current societal trends than we realize. It also shows me that, through writing, we can paradoxically become not only a voice of reason, but also a sounding board upon which to authentically listen to others.

    Took me a while to get to writing this comment, but I followed through! I’m glad you wrote (and write, frequently), Mark. You’ve been more a gift to me than you realize. Thank you.

    – Danno

    • We are getting our first snow!
      I can’t figure out how to reach you on FB!
      So if I see you here I can say hi!

  • Profound and inspiring. Thank you

  • I know that once we are committed to this journey we call recovery, there is no turning back. It is a sensational path indeed.

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