What's The Question?
For most of my life I have been focused on, not to say obsessed with, the answers; why this happened, what this meant, what did someone want from me, and who was I supposed to be. All I could pay attention to was trying to get answers to these questions so that I could relax. I felt that if I had answers then I could name myself in some profound way. That I would be able to pin myself down and that the stressful feeling of searching would abate. Now I am far more interested in exploring the questions than worrying about the answers.
Let's face it, we like the certainty of answers. We like being able to say we, and others, are married or single, straight or gay, conservative or liberal, black or white, or male or female. The first time this was brought home to me was late, very late, one night on a Manhattan subway. I was heading home and the train was very empty. I got into a car with one other person. As I sat down I looked across at this person and realized that I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. Trying not to stare I tried to figure it out but I couldn’t. And the longer I went without being able to answer that question the more uncomfortable I became. Finally I was so unsettled that I got up and moved to another car.
In this case part of my anxiety was about my safety. I would have stayed in the car with another woman if only to help us both be safer. But not knowing made me crazy. I had a question and not being able to get an answer drove me to leave. It was the first time I realized that, for me, not being able to put something or someone in a neat box was a challenge, but it wasn’t the last.
After that experience I began to be aware of how we are most comfortable when we can put someone, or ourself, into a nice tidy box. When we do so we don’t have to think, we don’t have to wonder, and we don’t have to sit with the uncertainty that comes from questions.
But true depth lives in the uncertainty; in the questioning and contemplating. True depth lives in the possibility that there is more than one right answer, that we all are more layered and nuanced than we may appear to be.
There is tremendous freedom in embracing the questions because when we do so we remove the pressure to know, and we give ourselves permission to pay attention. I was well into my 40’s before I finally was able to begin saying, “I don’t know” without incredible discomfort. Till then I felt as though I had to know the answers to questions posed. I had to be certain and clear. Then something shifted and I began to become more comfortable sitting with the questions and the emotions they brought up. The boxes I had built for myself and others started to feel like the prisons they were. A prison built and guarded by me, but a prison nonetheless.
Having the “answers” meant I didn’t have to do the hard thinking, have the courageous conversations or stand up and question long held beliefs; both my own and others. Having the answers meant I didn't have to pay attention, after all I already knew what the answer was, didn't I? Most importantly, I realized that answers are often the end of a conversation and questions are the beginning. Whether that conversation is an internal one or one I have with others, I want it to continue. I want to keep asking the questions, staying engaged in the conversation, and questioning the answers.