An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do
I have been trying to write you a question for months now, but I can’t figure out what it is exactly. The words won’t come. When I try to write them down I know they aren’t right, but the right ones are sitting there at the corner of my eye and when I turn towards them they disappear.
What if I ask the wrong question? I’m afraid of what will happen.
I was talking to a friend yesterday about the nature of religion and its purpose for people. We both agreed that, beyond the need for community, which is a lot of what people get out of religion, what many folks get is a focused place to bring the perennial and essential question: What the fuck?!?
Some folks seek religion because they want to be told the answers. That would be your evangelicals and fundamentalists. They like certainty, binaries, literalism, a sense of control in the face of chaos. I can sympathize with the desire, but it does feel like spitting against the wind. I mean, good luck with that.
Really, so much of what you describe — being palpably aware of all that you don’t know and feeling trepidation, or even dread, about it — is the essential nature of life in my experience. Coming to some kind of peace with not being able to know or control outcomes is, hopefully, part of getting older. It requires an accumulation of enough experiences that you didn’t anticipate and realizing they not only didn’t kill you (look at you, standing there, still breathing and stuff), they actually taught you all sorts of important things.
Those things may have been hard, even painful, things — how to survive the death of a person or relationship, what it feels like to make a really enormous, public mistake, how to weather the unintended consequences of your choices. But if you didn’t repress the uncomfortable feelings that arise through those sorts of experiences, which cuts off any chance for gaining a deeper understanding of yourself and the world, you likely learned more from them than you have from your triumphs.
That’s the gift of elders, which is a position we don’t appreciate enough in this culture. Assuming they’ve approached life with a learning mindset, they accumulate so much experience and insight. And they don’t tend to sweat it all so much. They help us remember what’s most important (love, connection, self-respect) and what will simply crumble to ash once we’re gone (possessions, status).
Here’s another thing about asking questions: you know how, when you ask someone a question, you often start answering the question inside your own head before they’ve even gotten a word out? There’s no shame in this. We all do it. Part of finding the right questions, however, is training ourselves to not do this; learning to actually and deeply listen, without anticipating what the answer will be based on our own preconceptions, experience, and filters.
Conversations with other people are the best place to practice developing this skill, but at some point, you’ll have to take your questions to something more ephemeral. Some people call it God, but you don’t have to do that. If there is a God, or a Divine Intelligence, if you will, I don’t think they care how you frame it. Bigger fish to fry and all that, yes?
The important thing is to create space in your head where you can settle into some mental stillness, which doesn’t mean physical stillness, necessarily. I have a lot of nervous physical energy myself, so I’m better at listening when I’m walking. I’ll pose a question to myself and then set out. I don’t try to clear my mind as much as I release attachment to any of the thoughts that bubble up. I just let them float in and out as I move, like clouds passing by in the sky. Oftentimes, eventually, something will float in that is unexpected and exactly right. Sometimes it’s an answer, and sometimes it’s another question that takes my thoughts in a totally new direction, or that refines and focuses my thinking.
If you’re not a nervous walker like me, by all means, do sitting meditation, or stream of consciousness writing, or whatever allows you to get out of your own way long enough to release your death grip on fear of the unknown and instead invite in the unexpected. I trust you will get the answers you’re looking for, or work your way around to the right question for the present moment.
The most useful questions in my own life are the ones that don’t have fixed and final answers. They’re not “What’s for dinner?” types of questions, but more “Who am I?” sorts of questions. Trail-of-breadcrumbs type questions are also incredibly useful, as in “What is the next right thing?” You can get a long way in life by taking your focus off of the unknown future and simply listening deeply for what the next step should be.
I think, WTF, that your sense of fear and overwhelm is understandable and normal. It makes sense you feel that way. I mean, what the fuck with this life, right? I would encourage you to take your eyes off the distant horizon and stop fretfully trying to catch the thing that’s lurking at the corner of your vision and pin it down. The questions you ask are less important than the way in which you ask them, and whether you can allow yourself to listen deeply enough to welcome in whatever surprising response may come.
I trust that you can meet whatever rises up. I trust you can do the next right thing, find the next right answer, ask the next right question, on and on until the end. Just listen and begin. If you don’t trust yourself now, you will. Promise.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at email@example.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
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