Destined to be misunderstood

In 1964, jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone recorded a song written by songwriters Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus, which contains the lyrics: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

The song has since been recorded by dozens of other artists. Much of its appeal, I think, is due to the power of those lyrics.

We all sometimes feel misunderstood.


Being misunderstood can be frustrating and upsetting even for trivial matters.

When I was a student, I often played friendly games of badminton with a friend.

He was a more experienced player and, for a long time, he won every single game. Slowly but surely, however, my game improved.

Finally, the day arrived when, for the first time, I beat him.

I found this experience strangely unsettling. He and I had become so used to our respective roles of winner and loser that I felt quite uncomfortable - almost guilty - about knocking him off his pedestal.

As a result, I spent the next 10 minutes, as we showered and changed, prattling on about how surprised I was to have won; how I never expected to win; and so forth.

This flow of verbal diarrhoea came to an abrupt end when my friend, who was not usually prone to emotional outbursts, blurted in a choked-up, tearful voice: "You just… have to… keep… rubbing it in…. don't you!"

I was gobsmacked.

"Rubbing it in" had been the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I was so stunned at having my actions so negatively misconstrued that I didn't even protest my innocence.

I could provide more examples of times when my well-meaning actions have been misunderstood. But this would be as unnecessary as it would be tedious.

Every reader will be able to come up with plenty of examples from his or her own experience.


We are all destined, again and again, to be misunderstood. Other people have no access to our inner thoughts and feelings.

So, inevitably, they will sometimes make incorrect judgments about why we do the things we do.

At times when they are feeling angry, insecure or upset, they will be especially prone to make negative assumptions about our motivations and intentions.

It can be annoying. It can be upsetting. But there is little we can do about it. We have to accept it as a fact of life.

The German writer and thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), put it like this: "So long as you live and work, you will be misunderstood; to that you must resign yourself once and for all. Be silent!"

Nobody is immune. If we were to make a list of the men and women we consider the wisest and best throughout history, our list would consist entirely of people whose actions, motives and ideas were often misunderstood.

If they, with all of their wisdom and virtue, were so poorly understood, then we can hardly expect to fare better.

Needless to say, we are every bit as liable to misinterpret other people's behaviour as they are to misinterpret ours.

We may assume that someone is being unfriendly when they are merely feeling awkward and shy. We may interpret a clumsy attempt at humour as a deliberate intention to offend. Or we may mistake well-meaning advice for presumptuous interference.

We will all, from time to time, misjudge and misunderstand others. It is human nature.

Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

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