Things Not So Readily Understood

Each of us, I imagine, has something, or maybe several things, that others don’t readily understand. We know what they are, because we keep coming up against them. The reason this happens is that no one can step into another’s manifold. It might seem to overlap with our own, but it really doesn’t. “I know what you mean” is one of the most common falsehoods in the world. These misunderstood things, far from being hindrances or flaws, help form the basic compass of who we are.

I can think of three such things on the spot. One is my need for solitude. It doesn’t mean I always like to be alone. But I need room, even among others, to think things out, to take my own directions. And at this point in life, I not only enjoy living alone but need it too, to the extent that it is possible. Hungarians frown upon this somewhat—not all Hungarians, but many. (To a great extent, Judaism frowns on it too.) But solitude and company are always affecting and interchanging with each other, so a person who needs solitude will also need company. It is a great joy when something feels kindred, something “clicks,” or even when it doesn’t but the conversation or common project fills me with thoughts.

The second point of difference is that I have plenty to do and am not looking for additional work or projects. It took a long time to get across that I do not want to give private English lessons; now the same applies to other things as well. My time outside of teaching is scarce and precious, and I need the freedom to spend it as I choose, to the extent possible. I say “to the extent possible” because things come up over which I have little or no control, and it’s good to give in to them at times. But I am not happy when rushing from one task to the next, especially when these tasks come from others. I need, to some extent, to set my own terms. Those terms are my happy terrain, which continually changes and opens: projects come into being, associations form, I find music that I love. I can’t explain this to anyone else, but I won’t give it up either. In short, I have plenty to do, and it’s important to me to do it slowly and thoughtfully instead of cramming my days with more and more. The stretches of time, and the relative freedom to do what I please within it, are much more important to me than money or fame.

The third is that I find politics not only boring, but superficial. Most political arguments, whether on the right or the left, only scrape the surface of things. Some do go deeper, but only when they deal with structures of human relation. Then fundamental questions come up: Who are we, and what are we capable of deciding and accomplishing together for the common good? Where does the common good conflict with individual good? These questions do not run dry, but parlor-talk does. I feel as uncomfortable with left-wing talk as with right-wing talk; and moderates often fall into traps of compromise and equivocation. Most of the time I am left wondering: why so much talk about this stuff? Why the need to have and proclaim an opinion about every current issue? Sure, I have my opinions too, and at times I make them known. But then I get sick of them. Other things I don’t get sick of, no matter how many times I return to them. Why not focus on those? Yes, politics are important; someone has to figure out how our systems will work and who will lead them. But they are not the only important actions, thoughts, or creations.

But these are just some of mine, and I know I am not alone; we all have prickliness of one kind or another, things that stick out, that aren’t exactly what others expect, approve of, or want. I say, live out that prickliness (without being obnoxious about it). Ruffle those feathers, be that jaunty, dreamy bird that struts through the day.

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  1. “I know what you mean but I say it another way” — it’s a thing I find myself saying often enough, if only under my breath, to rate an acronym for it ☞ IKWYMBISIAW ☜ and not too coincidentally it’s a rubric of relevance to many situations in semiotics where sundry manners of speaking and thinking converge, more or less, on the same patch of pragmata.

    • Yes, that “more or less” is the key part here. Some kind of qualification is in order, because it’s rare for one person to know exactly what another means, unless “means” is taken in a strictly delimited way. For instance, if someone whose native language is Dutch says, “I went to the boekenwinkel,” I might say, “I know what you mean,” meaning, “I know that you meant that you went to the bookstore.” But if someone says “I like spending time in bookstores,” and I say “I know what you mean,” then it’s likely I haven’t thought it through. Lots of people can like spending time in bookstores, but each person’s liking (and bookstore) is slightly different. I might have a hunch about what the other person means, or I might know approximately, but that’s it. (That’s more or less what I meant.:))


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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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