There is nothing as powerful as a question. Answers close everything down. Questions open everything up. In our efforts to improve our lives, our careers, our relationships, and our creative output it’s important to spend some quality time with a handful of good questions.
What really matters to me?
There are so many conflicting demands made on our attention. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Before you know it, the day is gone. And what do you have to show for it? Every moment requires a decision in the face of an infinite array of possibilities. The moments turn to hours, the hours turn to days, and before you know it, another year is gone. And you never know how many of those you have left. The little things add up and become the whole. Our life is the sum of our decisions. “How we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s vitally important that we by any means necessary clarify our values and order our priorities. There is no time to waste time. Make room for what really matters. As Stephen Covey says, put first things first. Whatever doesn’t fit gets dropped. Learn how to be okay with this.
A good way to re-order your priorities is by asking this next question.
Why am I doing this?
We do things for a lot of different reasons, some valid, some empty. Start being more careful about what you say yes to. Honestly assess the quality and value of the experiences you sign up for. Are you a thoughtful steward of your time, talent and treasure? What are you getting out of this? A tangible benefit? The joy of contributing to a worthy cause? Do these actions help cement a relationship that is important to me? Or am I doing this just to curry favor and feed my ego? There are no hard and fast rules here. Again, the question is so much more important, so much more vitally alive than the answer. When we live in the why, we stay open to the flashes of intuition and insight that guide us through the challenging terrain of motive.
What do we owe each other?
We do not live alone, no matter how isolated we feel. Our lives are inexorably bound up in the lives of everyone and everything else. We breathe the same air, share the same space and support each other in innumerable ways. Our decision-making needs to begin in the realization of our complete and utter interdependency. From that foundation it becomes clear that our society comes with a contract – the moral obligation to take responsibility for co-creating a world that works for everyone. That being said, we cannot offer ourselves up as martyrs on the altars of other people’s self-absorption. Finding the line between altruism and self-love is the work of every thinking man and woman. Compassionate action must be our guiding principle, including compassion for ourselves – why should we be excluded? Again, there are no hard and fast rules, just a formless, living awareness of our interdependency and a simultaneous acknowledgment of our personal liberty and responsibility. We cannot save everyone we meet from their own bad choices. But we also know that our fates are intertwined, and a blind eye and closed fist is a miserable response that shuts us off from our own happiness.
What is happiness?
When you keep it simple, happiness is simply feeling comfortable in your own skin. It’s a word we use to describe a general sense of well-being born of a thousand mothers – external circumstances, biology, the actions of others and our own free-will decision to choose happiness in spite of all those things. Without putting too fine a point on it, we all know what happiness is, yet we must keep this question open and alive if we are to move through the minefield of the myriad conflicting demands placed on us. We have to develop a subtle understanding of long-term self-interest. The willingness to sacrifice momentary, fleeting pleasures for long-term well-being is the watermark of maturity. Discipline, mastery, and self-restraint create the conditions in which our deepest and most authentic joy can thrive. For Aristotle, happiness is the result of risk-taking, hard work, and the courageous cultivation of our innate potential. Having the will power to nurture our own excellence and avoid the dissipation of trivial pursuits is an essential component of the well-lived life. And yet we must avoid thinking of happiness as a distant goal, an endpoint achievable only after we arrange all of the outer elements of our lives in accord with our whimsical demands. Nothing outside of us makes us happy. Happiness is a decision. It is quality of being, not a passive response to favorable stimuli. Pay attention to the subtle, fluid nature of your own emotional weather systems. Know that while there are always going to be ups and downs, it is possible to move in the general direction of happiness. One of the best ways to do that is to ask yourself this next question.
What am I?
Not Who am I? but What am I? Who am I? simply elicits a long list of labels and social definitions – man, woman, child, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, college student, job description, nationality, introvert, extrovert, political affiliation, ad infinitum. When the list is done, you’re still no closer to the real question. What’s beneath all of those masks? Don’t let the brevity or the childlike simplicity of the question fool you. This is a tough one. I know this sounds strange, but don’t let the mind rush to an answer – it will gladly offer up all of the usual suspects: a soul, a body, a spirit, a mass of protoplasm. The mind is incapable of answering this question – how could it? The mind is a function of the self, not its source. Asking the mind to define the mind is like asking your eyes to see your eyes. Confused? That’s the point. The mind is out of its depth here. Like a Zen koan, the question Who am I? nudges us through the veil that divides our surface consciousness from the depths of our inner witness, a profound and wordless knowing that hums with the energy of Being itself. How can a wave know that it is the entirety of the sea while it is utterly identified with the wave state?
Again, as much as we long to run into the arms of every awaiting answer, it is far more powerful to simply remain in the uncertainty created by the imposition of the question itself. As magnets attract iron, questions attract insight. Answers, on the other hand, attract argument.
Socrates lived his life, and ultimately gave his life, in the pursuit of self-knowledge. The dialogues of Plato that tell his story are masterful testimonies to the power of inquiry. Socrates wasn’t interested in cataloging the qualities of things; it was their essence he was after: beauty, truth, justice, and the good. And most important, what are we in the face of this eternal mystery?
Learn to trust the authority of your own inner voice. There is wisdom in the field of awareness, available to anyone willing to become silent enough to hear it. Take the time to listen. If you aren’t already, begin journaling. Take these questions into your prayer and meditation. In one way or another, make it a daily practice to spend time in the contemplation of the five questions.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterhbolland), or write to him at email@example.com