Questions or answers? Answers or questions? Which do we seek? Which do we most value? In this vein Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:
"I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
It's lamentably rare today to encounter an adult who follows Rilke’s advice to “love the questions.” Instead, we tend to shy away from questions, failing to see them as invitations to think more expansively and deeply about what truly matters in life.
We were all born filled with curiosity. Young children often exemplify this by asking questions all the time. Sometimes their constant questioning becomes too much for adults and they reprimand their kids, telling them, “Stop asking so many questions”. Though not necessarily done with malice, this kind of scolding can dampen curiosity, leading children to suppress the raw and wild questions that bubble up from deep within. This tragedy is illustrated by the following story told by Juanita Brown.
I am seven-years-old, in the second grade at Orchard Villa Elementary school in Miami, Florida. Mrs. Johnson is my teacher. She is very religious, in the Southern tradition. I am a small child for my age—skinny, lively, inquisitive. I want to know everything about everything.
Mrs. Johnson holds prayers in the classroom each morning. One day, while everyone is praying to God, I start to wonder what God actually looks like. As soon as the class prayers are over I raise my hand and pipe up in my squeaky little voice, “What color is God, Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson turns beet red. She is extremely upset. I don’t understand why she’s so angry. She grabs my arm and hisses, “Young lady, you are going right to the principal’s office and we’re calling your mother.” She marches me to the principal’s office, and they call my mother. I sit in there, terrified, until my mother arrives.
There we are—the principal shuffling her papers, Mrs. Johnson, still looking outraged, and me, getting smaller and more petrified by the minute. My mother comes into the room and sits down quietly next to me while Mrs. Johnson recounts the sin I have committed in asking the obviously impudent question, “What color is God?” during school prayers.
My mother listens in silence. She looks at the principal behind her big wooden desk, then moves her gaze to Mrs. Johnson, sitting primly next to the principal. Then she looks down at me, cowering in my seat. She puts her arm around me warmly, smiles, looks up at my teacher again and asks, “And what color is God, Mrs. Johnson?”
I was deeply grateful and relieved that day in the principal’s office. Had that day turned out differently, perhaps my question asking days would have been over.
When it comes to asking questions to strangers, for most of us, our repertoire doesn’t go much beyond requesting directions or asking where the restroom is. Whether we are on a bus, in line at the grocery store, or waiting in the dentist’s office, it appears that we prefer privacy to connection. But imagine how much more enlivening it could be if we gave ourselves permission in our public lives, to extend open smiles and generous questions to each other.
Our questions need not be clever or brilliant, just “generous”. In this vein, I remember once, at a gathering, being astonished to see my son Jake, who was only eight-years-old at the time, talking in animated fashion with a man who was a stranger to me. Later, I asked the man “What was it that you asked my son?” His response: “I just asked him what he likes to do.” Yes, it can be that simple.
On another occasion, I recall waiting at a bus stop and being asked by a stranger, “What’s alive for you?” Initially, I was caught off-guard by this question, but it was clear that the stranger was serious and so I paused to reflect and then shared that I had just moved to Seattle and what was alive for me was that I felt like a kid in summer, filled with energy and curiosity. In retrospect, the man’s question was generous, reminding me that what we all share is LIFE—and that our most fundamental mission in life is to COME FULLY TO LIFE. It’s why we are here!
When I encounter people who are dubious about the power of questions to lead to insight, I invite them into a question-based conversation. It is easy to do. Simply find a partner and have a conversation in which you playfully explore a topic, only by asking each other questions. For example, if your conversation topic was “joy”, the conversation might go something like this:
Tim: What brings you joy?
Maria: Hmmm, what is meant by joy?
Tim: Is the best way to know the meaning of joy to think about joyful moments in our lives?
Maria: Is there a difference—a distinction—between joyful moments and happy moments?
Tim: Hmmm… Is it possible that two words, like joy and happiness, could mean exactly the same thing?
Maria: Could it be that joy and happiness mean the same thing for me but different things for you?
Tim: Is it possible to communicate what one means by joy without words?
Maria: Where in your body do you experience joy?
As this example, hopefully, illustrates, limiting a conversation to questions has the potential to expand and deepen, rather than limit, our exchanges. Why? Because when our focus is on questions, it is easy to maintain openness and curiosity; but, when our emphasis shifts to answers, openness is diminished by the need to justify and defend our views. Now that you understand the rationale for this exercise, dive in and give it a go so that you can directly experience both the power and delight of it.
"Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know."
- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
"In the past, I often found standard questions like “How are you?” and “What’s new?” to be annoying, but now I realize that they give me the opportunity connect with others, provided I respond with sincerity."