April 27, 2023

The Abilities of the Receiver

There’s a fancy philosophical saying by ST. Thomas Aquinas that tends to stick with me whenever I’m dealing with people: “Everything received is only received according to the abilities of the receiver.” What that means is that everyone only understands anything in the way they can understand it. It’s a pretty simple principle when you think about it, really. Even Jesus himself did this, Muhammad did it, Moses, the Buddha – every successful spiritual or philosophical leader was very good at recognizing their audience’s abilities or modes of thinking and understanding.

If someone doesn’t know a bunch of fancy academic language, then more casual talk will help them understand. If someone is a stuffy academic, then if you don’t use a bunch of fancy academic language, they may just not take you seriously, our of professional habit, if nothing else. This is one of the most important lessons I try to leave any class group with. It goes hand-in-hand with another lesson I’m always promoting, which is simple self-awareness.

If you learn nothing else from me (in a class, on my website, as a friend or even an enemy... whatever our relationship may be), I hope you at least learn the value of self-awareness. Without simple yet elusive self-awareness, we can’t accomplish anything meaningful. And, if it’s good enough for all the major religious founders and philosophers throughout history, it’s good enough for all of us.

We’re not very good at thinking outside of our limited contexts.
We humans learn by analogy, by comparing one thing we don’t understand or can’t measure to something we do understand or can measure. And, while we’re pretty intelligent, we’re not so smart that we’re very good at thinking outside of our limited contexts. This is also sort of a message on empathy as well, in case you haven’t figured it out. To be relatable and to understand other people’s “abilities of reception” is more or less what empathy even is.

As a teacher, I try to remember that to speak to teenagers like adults is to respect them like adults. As a pastoral leader, I try to remember that to speak to someone with compassion is to love them as humans. And I’ve enjoyed learning to understand all all sorts of people over the years – to learn their lifestyles and ways of talking, their ways of seeing the world and processing it, and recognizing their distinctions without segregating them into my own categories, but respecting them as they are, for better and for worse, regardless of my opinions and perspectives.

Work to share other people's successes as well as failures.

I encourage you to do this too. Don’t care about status because it comes and goes too quickly (like reputations – a lifetime to build, seconds to destroy). Don’t care about material things, because they are fun and necessary, but they ultimately don’t bring happiness, and often become obstacles to true enjoyment (after all, you don’t own things, things own you). And care about money only as much as you need it to live and enjoy life (it may not buy happiness, but it’s a lot easier to be happy when you can pay bills and afford healthcare). Instead, work to understand others and see the world through their eyes, since your own experience is limited to just you. Work to share their successes as well as failures, and their happiness as well as their sorrow, Then, you will have really lived life to the fullest and fully gotten your money’s worth out of this cosmic practical joke we call existence.