Questions and Answers

Curiosity seems to be my middle name. I like searching for answers to questions, especially big ones. I like to find the names of things. I like to understand. Always that’s been true of me.

So when I went back to graduate school in my 40’s, I was full of questions. Over and over I would ask my favorite mentor/professor my current “big question.”

He would never answer them.

I knew he had at least an opinion. He was, after all, a professional philosopher. They think about everything! And I’d read some of his writings, so I knew it wasn’t that my questions were out of his realm of expertise. So I was getting frustrated with him and his refusal to answer, to help me understand. I was convinced it was deliberate.

Finally one day, I asked him, “Why won’t you answer my questions?”

There was a long silent moment, his eyes on mine. Then he said, “Have you ever noticed what happens inside you when you get an answer?”

I was stunned. He was inviting me to observe an inner place I’d never considered before. I’m not going to tell you what I found there, because I’m sure you can find the same awareness if you make your own observations inside. It changed the way I went about—well, many things.

He taught me something else about questions, equally enriching. He said that questions, especially the big ones, carry their own answers if the question is framed fully. Often he would ask me, “Is that what you most truly want to know?” And I’d have to step into myself to find out. It seldom was. Always there seemed to be deeper layers. When I followed them “down,” as far as I could, I discovered a change in the question and also a change in the quality of my experience. Much for the better, I must add.

I don’t always remember to challenge my own questions in this way. I still tend to think there must be answers, even though I know better now. Yet, I have grown from trying to practice these two things. You might enjoy a similar exploration.

If you find something interesting, let me hear from you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limits

We say that everyone has the right to think and do as they choose. Consequently, we are often reluctant to express anything that might set a boundary or limit on another person. Yet, it is well known that limiting someone’s unhealthy action or speech contributes to their potential well being, even if they don’t like it.

I first experienced this many years ago when I was managing a halfway house for recovering mental patients. My job was simply described: be real, and keep the House rules. House rules were three, including: each one takes a turn cooking supper for all 19 of us, on a 19 day rotation.

One morning I was in the living room when Maggie came down stairs, frowning, her hair disheveled and her step slow. She sat on the sofa and didn’t answer my “Good morning, Maggie.” This seemed out of character, so I stayed close to observe. Had she gone off her meds? But she wouldn’t talk.

After she sat there unmoving for almost two hours, I suddenly realized it was her turn to cook supper. Oh dear.

I reminded her of what was expected, indeed required of her that day. After many repetitions, she finally got up and dragged, furious, into the kitchen. Then came several hours of, “Maggie, get up and go to the refrigerator,” repeated until she did it, sighing out her angry resistance. Then “Open the freezer” until, groaning, she reached up and – well, you get the picture. It took hours to get those hot dogs and the accompanying salad ready to eat.

I felt awful. I had pushed, forced, insisted and threatened. How long would she stay angry? I couldn’t blame her at one level, and yet it was my responsibility to do exactly that.

Maggie completed her time in the House and left. A few months after that, she returned for a visit. She looked amazingly good. She had a job. She was polite and told me her social worker was praising her. She felt much better and her doctor had reduced her medication.

And then: “Remember that day you made me cook?”

“How could I forget that?” I answered. We laughed.

“Well, that’s the day I decided to get well,” she said.

“Really? Why?”

“Because you would let me act sick.”

It may not always be so dramatic, but it can always be constructive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything Can Happen

It’s 20 years ago now. The memory is still vivid. Shock can do that.

I’d come home from a meeting. My beloved husband and I were standing, arms around each other, making jokes and laughing. Three minutes later, he had passed from this earth. There had been no warning.

The pain and gifts of grief have been well studied. I’ve not seen any mention, though, of the greatest gift the experience of my beloved’s death brought to me. It was this: the bone-deep awareness that anything can happen at any moment, without warning, and without our control. In seconds, life can be turned inside out.

The awareness came because I could not argue with it. It was real. Done. Beyond me. So I had to make peace with the reality that my days are neither predictable nor controllable, even moment to moment. Neither are yours.

Most of us, most of the time, would rather not think of life that way. We make plans, get upset if they are changed; we “know” what we’ll be doing tomorrow; and some of us try hard to “make sure” that what we want to happen, does.

Of course, we have to live as though we can plan and the plans will materialize. But we need to know better. In acceptance of that knowing, vast peacefulness can be ours. It is, after all, the truth.

In coming to this peacefulness, I recognized that “anything can happen” does not refer only to challenging things. There are also delightful surprises, events and people we couldn’t have imagined, but that we welcome with joy.

So we want to stay open to all that is unexpected, what we like and what we don’t like. We want to become fluid. If I brace for the uncertain, if I close against change, if I am disturbed when life shifts, then I’m living in constant tension. It’s really a form of fear. And peace seems far away.

Today, I know that when a person chooses to make profound peace with the reality that anything can happen at any moment, then all changes become easier, all uncertainties can be accepted. Everything can expand us, help us grow. Love of life gets easier. Therein lies our power and our serenity. Our soul rests in that tranquility, no matter what is going on. May it be so for all of us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zig Zags

If you’re like me, you prefer that life go in a straight line—growing in linear, predictable steps, moving smoothly toward where we want to be. Much “success” writing seems to imply that that’s how it should be. And if you’re like me, it just doesn’t work that way.

A jet doesn’t fly in a straight line. It follows a set trajectory, yes, but between here and there it zigs a little to one side, then zags back to correct itself. It does arrive. When it’s my own life, though, I have been impatient with—or even frightened by—what appear to be side-trips.

At the beginning my PhD program, I was required to present my program proposal to the faculty at 8 a.m. on a particular day. It was now 4 p.m. the day before and the head of my department had just shown me why my proposal was not acceptable. Panic! I had no idea what to do now. And I surely didn’t want to wait and pay for another six months to try again.

After staring for several hours at the San Francisco lights across the Bay, an idea came. So at 11:30 p.m., I called an honored professor, who had once invited such a crisis call. In minutes, he filled out my idea with a bibliography and a few key words. I didn’t get much sleep that night, but my proposal was passed the next morning.

Most interesting of all: this section of my work became the most precious, the most influential, the most in line with my deeper aims. A big zig-zag, which I couldn’t have predicted, and which upset me greatly at the time, turned out to be an immeasurable impetus toward what I most wanted. And I learned an valuable lesson: I felt scared indeed, but the situation demanded a forward move. So I moved.

I did have an idea where I was headed. Beyond that, though, this taught me to trust the process. Life will zig and zag. It will take turns that feel off-track, turns that we don’t anticipate and don’t like. It may even feel like we’re going backwards. And what seems off-track now may well turn out to be more on-track than we could possibly have planned.

What’s your biggest zig-zag? How did it turn out?