“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, like books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his advice to a young poet
How does this quote resonate with you? What does it bring up?
“Live the questions now.” But how?
My book Asking In offers six carefully formulated questions to bring safety, meaning, and connection. Readers tell me these questions have helped them pause and reflect before mindlessly plunging into words or actions that cause pain, especially in relationships. These questions are beneficial tools to live with and ask often—a healthy habit for a joyful life.
Most of us have plenty of other questions. Some of them are easily answered while others require patience. It helps to view a question not as a tight tangle to escape from, but as a dance partner to hold in an open embrace—a little less Houdini, a little more Astaire. How rude it would be to not pay attention, to keep looking over its shoulder in hope of an answer to cut in like some kind of Prince Charming.
The ‘happily ever after’ is more about the questions! Because an answer often leads to other questions. Such was the case with a question posed by Mark Coleman to our class at Spirit Rock decades ago. He asked, “What is holding you in bondage?” I hadn’t thought I was in bondage, yet the question kept noodling around in my brain, and after a few weeks I came up with what felt like a true answer. And it was. But it led to another question. And then another. This series of questions became a rich exploration over a period of months. The process itself offered up a sense of deep understanding that never would have happened without taking on Mark’s challenge to consider that first question.
Learning to live with the question, allowing for the possibility of not knowing, is a joyful place to be.
When my brother was dying, one evening as the rest of our family care team finished their dinner, I sat by his bedside, and he asked me, “What happens next?”
When I was younger I would have told him what I felt I knew to be true about what follows the transition from this physical realm. But I’m older now, and I’ve learned one thing for sure: I don’t know.
So that’s all I could offer him. “I don’t know. But whatever happens, we are here with you. We love you and we’ll make you as comfortable as we can.” He smiled and drifted off. Maybe that was enough to know for now.
Of course, some part of me wanted to answer the unanswerable, to offer him something to look forward to. Decades earlier, when my mother was dying, she wondered the same thing. I reminded her of her recent dream: she was a child again and her parents (long since deceased) were walking in a field and turned back to reach out their hands to her. Because it was her dream imagery, I felt safe to say, “I imagine that’s what it will be like for you.”
Was it indeed like that for her? I don’t know! But it felt true to me, especially because a week earlier she had asked me to visit a Catholic church and light a candle for her father on his birthday. Neither she nor he was religious, but she was too ill to make our traditional cocktail toast to him. So off I went in search of a Catholic church. The first one I visited didn’t feel right somehow. Then I remembered a small one I’d always wanted to visit. The church was empty except for a guitarist strumming up by the altar. I looked around for the votive candles, but couldn’t see them. So I sat down in a pew, listened to the music, and allowed myself a rare moment of simply being present in my frantic life at the time. Ah. And then the voice of my grandfather came to me. He said, “Her mother and I are ready for her.” My brief respite of relaxation turned to a gripping fear. My grandparents might be ready to receive her, but I wasn’t ready to let her go. Yet his words made me realize the truth of her situation. Her doctor did not understand how she was still alive. “She’s living on pure will,” he once told me. “She has no lungs.” I hated that doctor. But I loved my grandfather. It was only after I tearfully realized he was right, that I saw the stand with the votive candles, a flickering mass of red against the wall. How could I have missed that? It felt like it had been withheld from me until I took the time to sit, be present, and open to the answer I needed then. I got up and went to light the candle. Then, as I left the church and dropped a donation in the slot, I heard my grandfather’s distinctive jovial voice saying: “Thanks for the use of the hall!”
So when I reminded my mother of that dream she’d had, it was backed up by my other-worldly encounter with her beloved father. Did it comfort her? I don’t know. It comforted me, the soon to be bereaved 41-year-old daughter, who upon losing her mother, lost her health and her career, but through meditation and self-inquiry found herself.