February 2014

The Importance of
 Your Questions

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Throughout our lives, we ask ourselves questions. What career do I want to pursue? Where do I want to live? When will I retire?

Naturally, there tends to be a lot of emphasis put on the answers to such questions. As a result, we can be in a rush to get to an answer to a question—any answer—and we can neglect the importance of the question itself. It matters which questions you ask, how you ask them, and which ones you choose to answer.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged us to embrace our questions and to take our time arriving at our answers. He wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” It can be hard to love a question when we are eager for an answer. But perhaps if we reflect on how important our questions are, we will have more affection for them and we won’t be in such a hurry to be done with them.

Which questions to ask?

It may seem obvious, but it’s tremendously important which questions we ask ourselves. If we don’t ask ourselves certain questions before taking a major step in life, we might be limiting our choices unnecessarily. Suppose you have just completed your education and are looking for a job. If you ask yourself, “Am I willing to move in order to obtain a really good job?” you might find that you are open to more possibilities, compared to a situation in which moving for a job doesn’t cross your mind. It matters very much which questions we ask ourselves.

How you ask questions

It also matters very much how the questions are asked. For example, asking yourself “What career do I want to pursue?” is different from “Which career should I pursue?” In the first case, your own preferences are clearly the driving force behind the decision. In the second case, it is unclear what will be the primary force driving the decision; it might be your preferences, but it also might be the expectations of friends and relatives. So how you ask a question can have a profound effect both on the process you use to respond to it and on the answer you eventually arrive at.

To give a related example, suppose you ask yourself, “What kind of job should I try to get?” This inquiry seems focused on the near future, whereas the two questions about a career are more focused on the long term. Once again, how you ask a question can truly have an effect on the answer.

How you ask a question not only matters when you pose a big once-in-a-lifetime type of question, but also when you inquire about something more often, such as annually. If you say to yourself, “Where should I go on my summer vacation?” you might not consider taking a vacation in a different season, such as fall. Asking yourself “Where should I go on my vacation?” might lead you to consider something totally new for you, such as visiting a beach in October.

Which questions to tackle?

We’ve reflected on which questions we ask and how we ask them. Another issue involves which questions we choose to tackle. We don’t have the time or energy to answer every single question that we could ask ourselves right now. You could sit down today and write a list of 100 questions that you’d like to have answers to, but you can’t tackle all of them at once. (Writing such a list is a fascinating exercise and a future article in Blue River Monthly will discuss the value of this activity.) So we need to prioritize our questions and focus on those that are the most urgent and are the most closely related to our current goals.

Living the questions

Once you have decided which specific question you are going to address, then you can delve into the process of coming up with and evaluating possible answers. This is where patience is crucial. Patience helps us to initially endure the uncertainty of not knowing what the possible answers are; once we know the possibilities, patience aids us in our journey to a satisfactory answer.

Something else that can be helpful during this stage is to think about how you have the opportunity to “try on” different answers. If you’re trying to decide where to go on a vacation, you can imagine trips to different locales, you can talk with friends and relatives about their trips, and you can do all sorts of research online to gather relevant information. When engaging in these types of exploration, you are in effect heeding further advice from the poet Rilke: “Live the questions now.” You might even find yourself enjoying being able to dream for a while about the trips you might take, instead of just being focused on nailing down your specific plans as soon as you can.

For some of the really big questions that you face, you might want to experience trial runs of potential answers before you decide. If you’re pondering whether to retire in the near future, maybe you could take a week off from work to experience a trial run of retirement; instead of traveling, you could spend time at your home and at nearby places, to get a taste of what a typical week of retirement might be like. Or if you are considering relocating to an area, repeated visits to that area might aid in your decision making. Those are also ways of “living the questions.”

Sometimes the answers to your questions will emerge quickly and in other cases, it will be hard to believe how long the process is taking. However long it takes, the results might be more satisfying if you truly appreciate the importance of your questions.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the February 2014 issue

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