Do Folks Like Answers More than Questions?
"I'm Not Sure" Seems to Make People Anxious
About fifteen years ago, when I was writing my book, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, I realized that asking questions, without rushing to answer them, made me anxious. I was eager to come to conclusions, and to feel solidarity with people who share my conclusions.
Writing the book became an exercise for me in learning how to think more deeply: how to ask questions about my questions; how to move beyond critiquing what is to envisioning what might be (and the challenges involved); how to remain mentally unresolved without worrying about it.
Most people, in my experience, don’t like to dwell in that uncertainty zone. We like to know where we stand. We are attracted to beliefs, and like to label our beliefs as facts, and like to color them as convictions. We feel uncomfortable with uncertainty — uncomfortable enough to feel hostility towards those who undermine our certainties.
Yet it also seems, in my experience, that as we get older and recognize the vast complicatedness of everything human, we’re able to feel more accepting about “I’m not sure.” Ethical touchstones like “kindness” and “interdependence” then fill in as the foundations of what we feel, if not believe.
Passover, for Jews, is the assigned time for asking questions (although in the classic Haggadah, the questions are prescribed, the answers are rote, and the child who asks “What is all of this to you?” is described as “wicked”). At the next Alte Zoom, we’re asking folks to bring a question to share. I’m hoping it will be a question for which you do not have an answer — a question that truly helps you wonder. (The gathering is on April 1st at 6 p.m.; write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to receive the Zoom invitation.)
Here’s a set of questions I asked myself a few years ago during one of my lifelong wrestling matches under the “Capitalism vs. Socialism” banner. The first set of questions might be described as tendentious, the second as more sincere — which reveals my political leanings — but each of them, in my book, deserves its own book.
FOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT CAPITALISM
1. If we put so much energy into competition, what kind of human beings will we create?
2. What is the market value of a mother’s love or an elder’s wisdom?
3. Why can’t we just share and let the robots do the dirty or difficult work?
4. How many planets will we need to sustain all of this?
FOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT SOCIALISM
1. Is it an economic program, an ethic, an aesthetic, or an emotion?
2. How do we encourage socialist attitudes without making individualist attitudes seem anti-authoritarian and cool?
3. If we have less insecurity, will we be less inventive and more careless?
4. What if I’d rather be left alone?
For me, devising complicated questions has become much more satisfying than arriving at enduring answers. I suppose I must be getting old.