A lot of people thought Ludwig van Beethoven was an unpleasant person.
He could be impatient, and often tempestuous. But most of the time, when people thought the composer was being gruff or imperious or rude, it was the result of his trying to hide the fact that he couldn’t hear a word they were saying. For many of the final years of his life, Beethoven was stone deaf.
Here’s how he explained the situation in a letter:
Forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.
It would have been embarrassing, and jeopardizing to his career, if anyone other than Beethoven’s closest confidants discovered his deafness. So he did his best to hide it, and in so doing often appeared rude.
Many of the people who encountered Beethoven assumed he didn’t like them, or was simply a snob – in other words, that it was all about them. But it had nothing to do with them. It was about Beethoven.
My point is that mind-reading is impossible. You will never know what someone else is thinking – what’s really going on in his head – unless you ask him, and listen closely to his answer.
I often watch patients react badly to something a friend has said or done, operating on the assumption that they knew what their friend was thinking…only to be proven wrong. That’s how misunderstandings occur.
Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re feeling. Maybe that’s why Beethoven felt driven to write music, even to his last breath, when he could only hear it in his head.
If you want to know what Beethoven was really thinking and feeling, listen to a little of this – music written in the mind of a deaf man:
Beethoven wasn’t the only misunderstood musician. John Coltrane was often described as a very serious man who never smiled. In reality, he was a sweetheart – just self-conscious about his crooked teeth.
Here’s what Coltrane was really thinking:
Miles Davis, too, was accused of being hostile and aggressive because he sometimes turned his back to the audience during performances. In reality, he was conducting. At that point in his career, Miles was playing very sophisticated, partially improvised music. He’d created an involved, customized system of hand signals with his band, and needed to pay attention in order to give them complex musical cues.
Here’s what Miles was really thinking:
People are complicated. Some of them – like Beethoven, or Coltrane, or Miles – you could spend a lifetime figuring out.
The first step is to stop trying to mind-read, and understand it might not be about you. It might be about them – and understanding who they are before you jump to conclusions.