By Celia Coates
Most of us don’t spend much time asking deeply serious questions. It’s easier to ignore them or distract ourselves with something more amusing. So that’s where I’ll start – with an amusing story from THE NEW YORKER,
“What does it all mean? Why are we here? These are questions with which philosophers have wrestled from the time of the ancient Greeks to – well, two weekends ago, at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Simon Critchley, a professor at the New School, brought several of his Ph.D. students to the library to conduct seminars with young thinkers….”
Joseph Lemelin, one of the graduate students started off with the six-to-eight-year-olds:
“’What is philosophy?’ he asked, in a friendly way….
“I want my mommy,’ someone whimpered. A boy pulled up his shirt and stuck his name tag to his naked belly.”
Things went a little better with the eight-to-ten-year-olds. One girl said she had been asking where we all come from since the third grade. Lemelin asked,
“’What are we supposed to be doing with our lives? … We’re here, and then we die?’
’What if we’re not really here? What if we’re in someone else’s dream?’ the philosopher-since-the-third-grade asked.’
To one of the questions another student responded, “Look it up.”
Where can we look up the answers to really important questions? Ask an older, wiser person? Find a book? Wikipedia and Google are not really much help, although the TED Talks provide some wonderful personal reflections on life and meaning. Humans have wondered for many centuries about ourselves and the nature of what’s around us, about what’s true and important. Some of what we’ve learned can be found in the world’s religions, in philosophy, and in the study of ancient teachings and the perennial wisdom.
Rachel Naomi Remen is a wise woman and a wonderful storyteller. In MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSINGS she wrote,
“Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep if life moves past us to its next questions. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”
Yes, to have good companions in exploring life is a great treasure.
There certainly is a great variety of views on asking questions. David Rothkopf, who has written THE GREAT QUESTIONS OF TOMORROW, believes in the power of questions and that there are some we really need to be asking now, He says,
“Asking the right question is where to begin.”
How do you know what the right question is? Rothkopf’s own focus is on the huge changes that lie ahead for humanity and on what we need to know to meet the challenges they will present. He asks,
“How do we begin to address these massive shifts in nearly every facet of our lives?”
He goes on to write,
“…(M)ost of us have our backs to it. We are looking in the wrong direction. Indeed many of those in positions of power are actively trying to cling to the past, avoiding the inevitable and momentous changes to come.”
For him the right questions have to do with finding out how cultures can meet change.
“When sweeping changes have occurred in history – the religious awakenings of the Reformation; the scientific advances of the Age of Exploration; the technological developments of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution – they have not just brought with them new knowledge, but provoked great questions about how we must live.”
At the global level, predictions about changes that could at times be catastrophic have become are part of our daily lives. At the personal level, each of us has to deal at one time or another with changes that sweep away our ordinary expectations. What questions do we need to be asking about our world and for ourselves? What do we need to know?
WINN centers on what we need to know now. My own view is that we need to know that the material world is not all there is. To know that reality is multi-dimensional and that humans are transcendent beings presents a wholly different perspective that can transform how we live. The old questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What is a good life? What happens after life ends? – can be asked with a new range of possible answers.
What questions are you asking? What are the problems or puzzles or mysteries that face you? And, what answers are you finding?
* * * * *
THE NEW YORKER, April 24, 2017, “Department of Big Questions – Chewing It Over,” by Rebecca Mead.
Rachel Naomi Remen, MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSINGS, Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging,
David Rothkopf, THE GREAT QUESTIONS OF TOMORROW, TED Books, Simon and Schuster, 2017.