We are a questioning species, both curious and prone to wonder, but also instinctual problem-solvers. When a question arises, we immediately begin to look for an answer.
The search for these answers–big and small–has inspired great journeys, across unknown seas, into space, and through the depths of our inner mental and emotional worlds. You might say it has been Questions, more than circumstance or crisis that has led to the greatest Journeys of the hero or heroine.
When we think about the Big Questions of the Universe – Where did we come from? How did the Universe come to exist? – it is the act of questioning itself that has led to our incredible leaps in knowledge about the world in which we live. Evolution. The Big Bang. These theories began as Questions, and despite the enormity of their proposition, these questions were pursued by people who believed they might have answers.
As children, we are infinitely curious. We marvel and wonder and are not afraid to ask the exact same question again and again–especially if we feel we haven’t found a satisfying answer. Yet the older we get, the more asking questions costs us. We are afraid to ask questions and face judgement because ‘we don’t know’. I was listening to a podcast with Michaelbrent Collings who said something very profound- “We have been taught that asking questions marks us as fools.” (A friend, Eleanor Brown, has written an inspiring piece on the wisdom of the fool here.)
And perhaps even more fundamentally, we are afraid of asking Questions because we are afraid of the Answers. We are afraid to question what we think we know. We are afraid such answers might shake our understanding of our world that we have built up around us – and whether or not that understanding has brought us happiness or not, it is what we know and it feels safe.
I imagine at a certain point in time, questioning whether the Earth was really flat or whether the Earth was really at the centre of the cosmos was not easy. And what is even more interesting to me is that, even when these questions were being asked by some (Copernicus or Galileo or Darwin, for instance), even when the answers were known by some, there was still a long time when they were difficult questions to ask.
Still, these are questions about our external world. Questions of science. Questions that can be discovered through logic and data collection. But what about questions of our purpose? The meaning of our life? Are there really Answers to these kind of Big Questions?
I have been wondering this for as long as I can remember. These Big Questions hover about me like the yellow butterflies which followed Mauricio Babilonia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, beautiful and tantalising but also slightly unnerving. For me, asking these questions can feel both incredibly inspiring on some days, and insanely daunting on many others. Because I don’t HAVE the answers…yet…and so the search for the meaning of my life, the meaning of all life, the force that binds us to each other and to the Earth, requires a great deal of faith.
There are many who believe that there are no Answers to these Questions.
That life is essentially meaningless. That we are victims of luck or ill-fortune. That there is no greater depth to reality than what we see before us.
There are others who believe there are answers to such great questions of meaning and purpose, but that these answers are unknowable, shrouded in mystery. For both, the very act of questioning what we know and searching for some deeper meaning in life is a waste of time.
But for me, I believe there is wisdom out there to be had. And that these bits of wisdom can be used as stepping stones towards an understanding of the deeper meaning of our lives.
I was really inspired recently reading Lama Surya Das (a Jewish New Yorker turned Buddhist) who wrote a little book called The Big Questions. In it, he suggests that everyone has a Big Question that drives them and which they yearn to answer. Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens when I die? How can I lead a fulfilling life? What is courage? What is justice? For himself, Lama Surya Das says, “my vital basic core question or issue is, Why am I so rarely if ever, satisfied, content or fulfilled, and if so, never for very long?” For the Buddha, it was: Is the basic discontentment and suffering we experience in life avoidable, and if so how? By asking this question and then setting off in the hope of finding an ‘answer’ or ‘understanding’, the Buddha eventually found what he was looking for–now articulated as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.
I think there is another reason we often doubt the possibility of Answering such big life Questions (which then discourages us from allowing even these questions to exist in our lives). And that is that we live in a world which champions science and logic above all things. We are so used to trying to ‘measure’ everything, we are so trained to want bite-size externally provable pieces of knowledge, that we have forgotten that there are other ways of knowing. And there are other kinds of answers. Because of course the Answer to the meaning of your life can’t be told to you. It can’t be written down or measured or proven. It can only be Understood, Experienced. I love the word ‘wisdom’ because it embraces this other kind of knowing…the kind that comes from experience, that becomes part of you deep down in your bones.
So maybe there aren’t Answers to many of the Big Questions we have about our lives…maybe we need a different word. Maybe in order to journey forth, we should know we are searching for Understandings. For Wisdom.
So now I’m asking–what Big Question sits at the back of your mind? What Questions is life asking you? Because as Surya Das says,
“the more we seek to solve these mysteries, the more intelligently and deeply we live.”