Opening to the Spirit
Today’s word: Question
) I sometimes use rhetorical questions in conversation to share an observation. “Why does that politician use 'tweets' that way?” “How are we supposed to make sense of this latest tragedy?” “Why don't people trust the science behind vaccines?” When I ask these questions I do not expect an answer, nor do I appreciate a lecture. The question was meant to stimulate discussion.
Children have become used to answering questions since grade school. What is the capital of Canada? Who is our Governor General? When was Confederation? They learn at an early age the value of a correct answer. Rewards and appreciation are given for high scores. One answer that is frowned upon is “I don't know”. Kids learn to make things up so as not to appear ignorant. I know many adults who still do this, much to my annoyance. I don't mind admitting that I don't have the answer to all life's questions.
I once took a course on Intentional Interim Ministry. The program was designed to prepare ministers to work with congregations in crisis. One essential technique was the naive question. An observer, pretending not to know a situation, would ask questions to elicit the person's perspective on a difficult issue. There was no correct answer. Two people on opposites side of a situation would have very different answers. The question was a stepping-stone to resolving conflict.
Spiritual questions are like that. There is often no right or wrong answer. An education program I have often used is entitled “Living the Questions”. After many experiences I have learned that getting answers is not as important as asking the questions, and being open to whatever path this leads.
) I suppose every parent eventually gets exhausted with the unending curiosity of small children. Although I swore I would never repeat my parents exasperated replies, I have to admit that I also have resorted to “just because I said so!” when the “whys” became overwhelming.
Yet as the years pass and I have more time for reflection, it seems to me that to remain curious about life is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being human. To be curious keeps our spirits young and helps us adapt to changing circumstances. What new people will I meet? What new treatment is available to me? What new thing will I learn if I go down this new path? And most importantly, to my eyes, “What is going on in this person’s life that they treat me so poorly.” “How is it they have not learned to express their needs in other ways besides insults and threats?” “What, in this person’s personal history, has caused them to be so sensitive and defensive?”
Remaining curious about others means we withhold judgement. We don’t presume to know what’s wrong. We admit we might need to dig a little deeper to discover the source of the problem. I discovered this truth from watching daytime soap operas. I was surprised and intrigued by the various plots and subplots, intrigues and mysteries that would slowly unfold, like peeling away the layers of an onion. Life is much more than it appears on the surface.
Each of us develops coping techniques and defense mechanisms that became necessary along the way. They may not all be serving us well now. Questioning people’s behaviour and remaining curious and open to new information allows space for transformation, repentance and healing. Remaining curious about one another is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
) The quality of our lives is determined, in large part, by the quality of the questions we ask. Learning to ask good questions both of ourselves and others is a skill well worth acquiring.
My good friends will listen to descriptions of my troubles with other people and completely sympathize. They tell me how awful it is that I am being treated the way that I am and they tell me how right I am. My best friends don’t do anything like this. Instead, they ask questions. What do you think might be going on in their life that they are acting like this? What, in your behaviour, might be a trigger for them? How do you think they see it? I come out of these conversations wanting to be a better person and with more compassion for the people around me, even if they are still difficult.
The questions that I ask myself have changed over the years, and I am grateful for the teachers along the way who have helped me to examine my life. Concerns about approval (“How can I get people to like me?), and concerns about appearance (“What will people think?”), have faded to the background. Questions about how to better love the people around me, and how to use this life to lessen suffering, or maybe even bring hope, are now central.
Even the idea that we can question things like what it means to live a successful life can be freeing. Go ahead and ask questions. The new life the answers lead you to might be wonderful.
) Recently I had the joy of holding a newborn while the mother looked proudly on. Gazing into the child's fathomless dark eyes reminded me of hours I'd spent as a young parent doing the same. Those newly arrived to this world seem to be asking, "Where am I? Who are you? What's going on here?" Anything we do or say may interpreted as answers. They think we know, they look to us - what a sacred responsibility!
We have a chant for worship that celebrates the timeless questions. Imagine layered voices in a round, all singing "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" Attributed to the French painter Paul Gaugin, they represent primal universal questions of the human spirit. Voices layered and overlapping, each repetition invites us to go deeper with our inquiry. Once in a youthled worship at a national conference, we formed a multigenerational circle around a lighted candle. The inner circle started the chant, very softly; with each repetition the surrounding circles joined in. The chant gathered volume until the entire space was filled with questioning, all ages together.
Of ourselves and each other, and within the network of our relationships, even as societies we keep asking. Indeed, this being human means we continually try to make sense of this plane of existence, this world into which we've landed. Perhaps the most profoundly human response to being alive is to keep asking, "Who are we? Why are we here?" Answers change through life stages; they may seem at times to appear and at other times elude us, or get buried only to arise to nag at us later. Rather than finding the answers, it may be more important simply to keep asking. As a kind of reality check, to help to keep us on track, wherever we hope we're going.
One word, four voices - now it's your turn to reflect: What do you question, and why?
Rev. Mead Baldwin pastors the Waterville & North Hatley pastoral charge; Rev. Lynn Dillabough is now Rector of St. Paul's in Brockville ON. She continues to write for this column as a dedicated colleague with the Eastern Townships clergy writing team; Rev. Lee Ann Hogle ministers to the Ayer’s Cliff, Magog & Georgeville United Churches; Rev. Carole Martignacco is Consulting Minister to UU Estrieunitarian Universalists in North Hatley.