Open­ing to the Spirit

To­day’s word: Ques­tion

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL -

) 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.

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