From time to time I reflect upon the fact that many of the novels I appreciate come from a very particular narrow slice of fiction that involves the “hidden prince” or “hidden princess” story . A great deal of the poignancy of such writing comes from the wide gulf that exists between the character as they are seen by the writer and reader and as they are seen by everyone else, including perhaps themselves. We see, for example, bi-racial kids who are somewhat put upon serving as the kings of a put-upon Goblin people. We see a brilliant and famous wizard growing up in the broom closet because of the cruelty of his aunt and uncle. Examples like this could be multiplied indefinitely–one of my own favorites involves a crown prince of a small kingdom who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and forever struggles with literacy, something which for whatever reason I found a particularly sad fate.
Be that as it may, though, the hidden prince or hidden princess is not only a matter for fantasy novels, although it is a common aspect of worldbuilding there. Pink’s second album, for example, was devoted to the way that she felt misunderstood, being marketed as a sex symbol when she felt like an outsider with a screwed up personal history. Current pop-rap star Cardi B likely feels herself to be a particularly powerful woman in urban music, at least if her slew of hit singles indicates anything, even if there are plenty of people willing to envy her on account of her appeal to the relatively friendliness of mainstream music audiences towards lighter skinned women. We understand ourselves in ways based on our own life experiences and our own struggles, but other people see us through superficial identities and read into that all kinds of privilege and favoritism that we often do not see when we look at our own lives. Everybody feels misunderstood, not least because we look at our lives and see the difficulties we had to overcome while other people look at whatever success we have and give it any reason that would delegitimize that success and make it responsible on something other than our own just desserts, because they or someone they root for lacks that success for one reason or another.
The universality of feeling misunderstood has some strange consequences in our deeply fragmented age. One of these consequences is that we regularly find ourselves deeply drawn to those who give voice to our own feelings of being misunderstood but find it so difficult to relate to other people who are misunderstood, even if they are misunderstood in similar ways to ourselves. I find it poignant and touching when people I consider extremely attractive are drawn to books about those who are viewed as ugly, and find it equally paradoxical when people show frustration for being appreciated for their looks or for their physical strength only show appreciation to someone like me for my obvious intellect. What we see in ourselves and what others see in us is wildly different. We see in ourselves layers and aspects that for other people are scarcely seen, and see in others only those areas that are the most conspicuous, unless we have taken the time to get to know them well and they have trusted us enough to show us aspects of themselves that may not be so obvious. And yet even when we show different layers of ourselves and see different layers to those around us, we are not free from being misunderstood or from misunderstanding others. We can be misunderstood because we say too little or say too much. We can be misunderstood because others see in us what is not there or because they do not see in us what is there. We can be misunderstood because others look at us through the filters of love and hate, fear and longing, envy and contempt.
And even when we know that these feelings of being misunderstood are universal, that everyone we could talk to, if they were honest with us, could point to an area of their lives where they were strongly aggrieved that people thought of them as one way when they themselves saw themselves as different, this does not help us to relate to other people. It is one thing to feel that others misunderstand us and to know that other people feel just as misunderstood themselves. It is an entirely more difficult thing to see ourselves as others see us, as horrifying as that may be, or for us to see others as they see themselves, however ridiculous as that may appear to us. A big part of this reason is that we see ourselves as understanding others rightly, or at least more rightly than they understand us. This asymmetry keeps us from coming to terms with others, because others feel confident in their understandings of us that we view as woefully mistaken while we feel confident in our understandings of others that they hold equally in derision. The beams in our own eyes keep us from being able to see each other accurately, or see anything accurately. Again, these problems are universal–witness for example the way that people overlook everything awkward or negative about those with whom they are in love, and the way that they speak with incredible harshness about the flaws and foibles of those with whom they are no longer in love. To have a hermeneutic of charity towards other people and the way that they present themselves is terribly difficult to do, not least because we seldom feel as if others are being just, much less charitable, to us. And yet we are all in the same boat together, even if unwillingly so and often without the sort of brotherhood that one expects from those cast away on the lonely sea with only other misunderstood souls like ourselves for company.
 See, for example: