My father’s favorite game to play with me and my two brothers while we were growing up was something he called the Alien Game, in which he was a visitor from another planet (which we suspected already) and we were his guides here on Earth. He would ask questions and we would attempt to answer them. He would point into the sky, for instance, and ask, “What are those white formations that move through your atmosphere?”
“Clouds!” we’d say with great confidence.
“What are they made of?” he’d ask.
“Water,” we’d all say at once.
“How does the water get up there,” he’d inquire, “and what holds it up, and why does it move?”
In no time at all it would become apparent to us Earthlings that clouds weren’t the only things over our heads. Entire afternoons went by as we pondered the mysteries of water and wind, and how it’s possible that we can know so much and understand so little, that we can live with something every day of our lives and never really come to know it.
What the Alien Game taught me — and what I keep trying to Remember — is to see with the eyes of a child, who, after all, is in most ways an alien to this world. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I eventually became a journalist, thereby paying the rent with my curiosity.
What the Alien Game also taught me is the essential role that questioning plays in discovery and learning, that there’s precious little discovery without questioning, and that curiosity is at the heart of being a lifelong learner. I learned the power of questions to not only spark my imagination but to draw knowledge both to me and from me, and later in life I would use this tool not just on the outer world, but the inner world, as well. Self-reflection, in fact, is the natural response to a deep curiosity about ourselves, to the commitment to being students of our lives, archivists of life’s details (the first duty of love, Paul Tillich once said, is to listen). And to the degree that knowledge is power, self-knowledge is the beating heart of our individual relationships to power — how we exercise it, model it, walk it and talk it—–whether through leadership, parenting, ministry, teaching, counseling or consulting.
Most of those I interviewed for my book Callings — people who are very responsive to their lives and their curiosities — talked about having a regular practice of some kind whose purpose is to keep them in conversation with their own lives, in an ongoing dialogue with the deep self — question and answer, call and response, Alien and Earthling. Such practices strengthen their powers of observation, hone their ability to see subtleties within themselves (and others, and the world), and gently sand their fingertips to make them more sensitive to the feel of integrity in their lives, and the feel of its absence — what is true for them and what is false, when to act and when to wait, whom to trust and whom not, what direction to take at the crossroads, and how to navigate between what I think are two essential questions for any pilgrim: “What is right for me?” and “Where am I willing to be led?”
It also helps them overcome what the mythologist Joseph Campbell considered the great sacrilege in terms of the soul’s integrity, which he called “inadvertence.” In other words, not having the receiver turned on.
These dialoguing practices can include daily journaling, meditation, dream interpretation, therapy (which is nothing more than a conversation between people and themselves), artwork (especially that done in the service of self-discovery), movement work or martial arts, regular intimate conversation, your participation in any group whose members get together for the purpose of waking up, even contemplative reading.
These practices may also help us soften the antipathy many of us feel toward our own curiosities, a by-product of our childhood collisions with authority figures, usually parents and teachers. As a frequent lecturer and teacher, I am sometimes appalled at the frequency with which people say, “I know this is a stupid question, but….” Personally, I think there are no stupid questions, though there are often stupid answers. What I hear in this ubiquitous statement is a common anxiety that attends the quest for knowledge: the fear of being shamed for the lack of it, or simply the want of it.
Unfortunately, this fear is often warranted. Questioning is not always welcomed (and in some countries, it’s fatal), and many of us have been shamed for our inquisitiveness, either actively or passively. We have all had the experience of asking a question and having others quickly change the subject, or “ahem” at us in polite company, or tell us we think too much, or turn stiffly back to their chores as if they never heard us ask, or send us from the table or down to the principal’s office. Most of us can probably remember the effect of asking a certain question of a certain person who didn’t want to be bothered. Like the time you asked the nuns at Catholic school how Christ could possibly have been resurrected when he’d been dead for three days and there was a large stone covering his grave. Like the time you asked your doctor to explain every test result in detail. Like the time you asked your mother how babies are born, while she was entertaining. Or the time you asked why Daddy drinks so much.
Spark of instructive fire
Nothing shapes our lives so much as the questions we ask, says author Sam Keen, who himself wears a small silver question-mark on a chain around his neck. Imagine, he says, how different lives would be if they were propelled by the question “How can I serve others?” versus “Where can I get my next fix?” Or “How can I be the most authentic?” versus “What will the boss think?” Or “How can we balance ecology and economy?” versus “How can we make the most money?”
In the spirit of starting in our own backyards, let me ask this: What questions shape your own life? What questions are at the core of your life, or that your life answers just by the way you live it? What problems were you born to understand?
In my Callings workshops, I have heard many responses to this question, including: What is my purpose? Where do I belong? How can I serve the world? What conditions foster cooperation between people? What is my teaching? What does a just world look like? How do I raise compassionate children? How do I help create true community? How does the mind influence the course of disease? How do I learn to open my heart? How do I live a creative life? What on Earth am I doing?
What you’re after are questions that don’t arise solely from the intellect, but from a crying need to know, an existential thirst, a deep mystification. And they aren’t questions you necessarily need to answer outright. They’re questions you need to respond to, expose yourself to, and kneel before. They’re questions that should be approached as if they were emissaries from some Great Unknown, each question itself a mystery, and any number of lifetimes insufficient to get you much closer than the outskirts of the thing.
You don’t want an answer you can put in a box and set on a shelf. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life, a question that will offer you a lifetime of pondering, that will lead you toward what you need to know for your integrity, draw to you what you need for your journey, and help you understand what it means to burst at the seams. These questions will also lead you to others whose lives are propelled by the same questions — which I believe is central to the work of braiding together individual and corporate callings — and from these people you will receive “oh, never an answer,” as the writer P.L. Travers says, “but a spark of instructive fire.”
The deeper questions may not have singular answers, anyway, but multitudes of them. The principles of brainstorming have taught me that even our questions ought to be framed as if this were the case. Rather than asking, “Who am I?” we might ask, “In how many ways can I be myself?” Rather than asking “Where is my place in the world?” the question might be better put, “In how many ways can I experience a sense of belonging to the world?”
True understanding is a thing of layers, and the truth is not simple, and it degenerates the spirit of search and discovery to resent the truth its inconvenience and complexity. Sometimes you have to follow the example of Ulysses and strap yourself to the mast so that you can listen to the Sirens without reacting, explore without going overboard, ask even your most burning questions without going after answers as if you’re bench-pressing. You risk courting an intellectual hernia that way, and possibly a spiritual one. Going after answers with a “gotta have it” attitude tends to set up resistance and desperation, and makes you forget that answers can easily devolve into dogmas.
Also, the channels through which answers often come to us — dreams, intuitions, synchronicities, symptoms, accidents — are like oracles of any kind. They’re not meant to be treated like psychic vending machines, merely dispensing information. They should be approached for dialogue, entered into in the spirit of correspondence, impelled by what Eudora Welty called “the Geiger counter of the charged imagination.” That is, you imagine what the answers might mean, play with their many possible meanings, experiment and try them on for size, look to see if they fit, follow those that do and part with those that don’t.
“Listening the Soul”
The Quakers have what I consider a virtual antidote to the macho, problem-solving, advice-giving mentality that seems to characterize our culture as a whole. For any member struggling for clarity with a calling or a life decision or an intractable conundrum, they have a tradition of what they call “clearness committees.”
Before a clearnness committee meets, you, the “focus person,” compose a brief synopsis of the matter about which you seek clarity. This is circulated among the committee members who will attend the actual session. Members are made up of half-a-dozen people whom you choose from among friends, colleagues, mentors and even strangers.
Once in committee, members first observe a period of silence. This is not the perfunctory “moment of silence” that is merely a polite curtsy to the divine before getting on with business, or a chance to merely figure out what you’re going to say when the time’s up. It is a sincere attempt to shift the center of gravity from the personal to the transpersonal, toward bringing to an individual dilemma something of the divine, or at least the communal. The silence is also a gracious confession that discernment is a mysterious process and that absolute clarity is more an ideal than a real attainment. Yet it’s still amazing what can be accomplished, as the Quakers put it, by “listening each other’s souls into disclosure and discovery.”
After the silence, the rules are so simple they’re radical: ask questions only! No advice, no storytelling, no long and windy narratives, no problem-solving, no devil’s advocacy that’s usually more devil than advocate, no questions that are more accusatory than inquisitive: “And just how do you plan on making money with this idea?” Only questions posed in a spirit of caring rather even than curiosity, evocation rather than imposition.
The missing link
In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, described an incident in which he came upon a cocoon cradled in the bark of an olive tree just as the butterfly was making a hole and attempting to emerge. Impatient for results, he bent over it and warmed it under his breath, by which he succeeded in speeding up the process.
The butterfly, however, emerged prematurely, its wings hopelessly crumpled and stuck to its body, which needed the sun’s patient warmth, not the man’s impertinent breath, to do the transforming. Moments later, after a desperate struggle, the butterfly died in the palm of his hand.
“That little body,” Kazantzakis wrote toward the end of his life, “is the greatest weight I have on my conscience.”
We do much damage to ourselves and our enterprises by not being patient with our own evolutions and our own deepest questions, which by design and necessity luxuriate in an abundance of time and plot twists. We communicate to our own souls that we don’t have faith in them, in their intimacy with the creative force of life. We sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to see if elves are sewing things up. We force the fauna with our hot insistent breath. We rush a verdict so we can get home in time for dinner. We try to make things happen, hoping that in doing so we don’t inadvertently open the darkroom door while fate is developing our pictures.
Patience is one of the missing links in the search for knowledge, for clarity of mind and readiness of heart, and in waiting for events to unfurl and talents to ripen. These things seldom burst into being all at once. They accrete like oysters, bubble up and cool like lava, adding layer by layer onto the armature of themselves. Drumming your fingers won’t make events move any faster.
A question is an uncomfortable thing, though. It’s like someone leaving a message on your answering machine, or writing you a letter. It creates a kind of apprehension, an imbalance in the nature of things. A question sets a weight down on one side of a scale, and equilibrium isn’t quite restored until you set an equal weight on the other side — a response. But it is a peculiarity of successful people that they are able to tolerate sometimes extended periods of uncertainty and still hang onto their faith, if not their marbles.
Unfortunately, in this era of the “fast company,” we increasingly suffer from the cultural misapprehension that waiting means doing nothing. Great fanfare, for example, usually attends the moment of inspiration, the aha, the eureka, and the leap of faith — Sir Isaac Newton’s revelation upon the apple, Archimedes’ bathtub epiphany about specific gravity, Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem Kubla Khan, which is said to have popped into his consciousness whole.
Little notice, however, is taken of the usually lengthy period that precedes it — the period of observation, meditation, experimentation, uncertainty, frustration, fits and starts. The period of asking the questions over and over, of sleeping on it and pitching in our sleep. We love the answers and suffer the questions. We worship the flower and ignore the soil. We covet the diamond and overlook the pressure it took.
Far from being the transcendent experience we imagine or crave, this heroic journey, this search for what is truest, turns out to be largely pick-and-shovel work. “The more characteristic American hero in the earlier day,” the writer Mark Sullivan once observed, “and the more beloved type at all times, was not the hustler but the whittler.” In other words, we must ask our questions continually and devotedly, in hopes that by doing so Providence will be alerted to our desires and answers will find us.
Time in itself, however, won’t suffice, because the questioning process, the discernment process, isn’t just about being patient, but about being actively patient. It’s about using the time we have to submit the evidence we gather to the compassionate scrutiny of the mind, the adjudication of the heart, the gut reaction of the body. It is about taking up the pickax and digging, chipping away a bit at a time at our stony questions, or feeling our way like a bird that travels for thousands of miles guided only by instinct and the whisper of magnetism.