It has always been hard for me to ask questions.
I’ll start with how hard it is for me to ask for help. It’s that self-sufficient, expert, easier to do it myself, don’t want to show how inadequate I am syndrome. Throw in: If you want it done right, do it yourself. I am capable, I am strong, I am woman watch me roar. No thanks. I got this.
It’s taken me much too long to learn it’s not an admission of inadequacy to ask for help. In fact, the flip side is that being asked for help is often a huge complement.
A few weeks ago, I attended a Zoom conference facilitated by Valerie Kaur. (If you haven’t discovered her yet, do it as soon as you can. Listen to her Ted Talk on Revolutionary Love.) Valerie led an opening meditation in which she had us imagine our roots going deep into the earth. And because we were all imagining it, there were lots of roots going down, and our roots got intertwined with other people’s roots. Then we each thought about what we had to give to others, particularly during this pandemic, and what we needed from others. Our gifts and our needs. Whatever I had to give would go through my roots to others. Whatever I needed would come through their roots to me. We were one giant organism sharing resources in a healthy exchange. None of us is ALL. All of us have something to give and something we need.
I’ve thought about that root symbolism a lot. It’s not hard to imagine since I live in Colorado where there are mountain sides of Aspen. Aspen are like that. A whole giant organism, sharing resources. A great storehouse of roots intertwined and communicating. Hey! You got some water? Send it this way. I’m a little thirsty over here.
It makes it easier to ask for help thinking about it this way. Rather than an admission of helplessness or inadequacy, it’s a natural exchange of resources, skills, gifts, knowledge, ideas.
But asking for help is not the only type of question that’s been hard for me. Almost any question, I’m afraid. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the phrase: “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” If you believe that, you didn’t grow up in my house, or have a certain teacher in junior high, or a set of friends whose eye rolls could be seen for a ten-block radius. I asked some dumb questions early on. But I’m a quick learner and quit asking. Almost anything. Except maybe “Where’s the restroom?” Sometimes you have to ask that one.
And then there’s answering questions when given the opportunity. Similar blocks and excuses. What if I’m wrong? I will look (inadequate, unprepared, less than smart.)
Questions get stuffed inside for so many reasons. I’m not going to give those reasons any more power or clout. You know them as well as I do.
No, this morning I’m going to give myself over to questions. I’m going to practice questions. I’m going to prepare 20 questions, first as a thinking exercise, and then as an actual real-life exercise. I’m going to invite you to join me in this quest of questions.
Ask 20 questions. (Isn’t there a game named this? I think it always starts with: Is it bigger than a breadbox?)
Ask five questions to yourself.
Don’t start with the hard ones like What is the meaning of life? Or Who am I really? How about:
- What can I make for dinner with what I have on hand that won’t be the same-old, same-old?
- Where’s the first place I want to go when this lock-down is over?
- If I could be any animal, what would I like to be and why? What characteristics of that animal appeal to me? Do I already have some of those characteristics?
- (Hey – I’m not going to give them all to you. Besides, the previous one had three related questions.)
- Is it bigger than a breadbox?
Ask five questions to family members.
- Ask some semi-hard questions that you’ve always wanted to ask but weren’t brave enough. This is not a time to get in a discussion or an argument or be judgmental in any way. This is a time to ask a question that you really don’t know the answer to, that you’ve always wondered about. Don’t cut off the answer by doing anything but listen. (Remember that junior high teacher? Remember the eye rolls? Don’t be those people.)
- Follow up with another question to learn more. These questions need to be open-ended, not leading. A leading question is when you’re trying to get someone to a certain conclusion that YOU believe is right. Questions that start with: Have you thought about…, or Have you tried…. Those are examples of leading questions, and yes, they have thought about, and yes, they have tried. This is not about you and your ideas. It’s about learning to ask questions in a way you will learn something you never knew about the other person. Something that might surprise you. Something that allows that person (and you) to be more honest, more authentic. This is no place for judgement if that’s what you had in mind.
Ask five questions to a child.
Be careful how you ask. If they’ve already been traumatized by being wrong, wrong, oh so wrong, they may be wary of questions.
- What do you like to do for fun?
- What’s your favorite…?
- Is it bigger than a breadbox?
Ask five questions to the books on your shelf.
I am serious. And this is the most fun of all because you can practice forming questions and being surprised by answers. Ask a question. Close your eyes. Reach over and randomly pick a book from the shelf. Keeping your eyes closed, open the book and point. There is your answer. These are my questions and the answers I got this morning. I’m not making this up. These are the real answers I got from a random selection of sentences chosen randomly from five different books on my bookshelf. With my eyes closed. I did not cheat and choose another answer if I didn’t like the first. In fact, I laughed out loud because the answers were so spot on.
- What’s the most important thing I can do today? …a careful diagnosis of a fault
- What will bring me joy? I opened my eyes to my finger pointing at a picture of a butterfly.
- What silly thing can I do to make someone laugh out loud? When I opened my eyes, I was pointing at a list of words: decide, defend, delight, deliver. I have no idea what this means, but I decided to write this essay and I hope something in it delights you. That’s my defense for what I’m delivering.
- What does my soul want to learn? Love fills my heart with joy.
- Where can I look for help? Because I had gone on reading about Africa and animals, I was able to answer most of them.
That last one brought me full circle. My sage was Jane Goodall who added to my thinking about questions, my careful diagnosis of a fault I have of being fearful of questions. She told me two things. First, she knew the answer to most of the questions because she had studied. I, too, know the answers to many questions, at least in my areas of interest. And second, even she, expert that she is, says “most of them.” Not ALL. She knows a lot of answers. But she doesn’t know all of them. She admitted it.
I have a lot of answers in me. Some of them may be correct.
But my careful diagnosis leads me to the conclusion that questions may be even more important than answers. When we quit asking, we quit learning.
I think this is bigger than a breadbox.