I spent the afternoon with my nephew yesterday, and in the middle of lunch, he asked - why do people need money? He is 5 so he is at the stage now where he wants to understand everything. We try to answer and converse with him as best you can with a 5 year old, and so I answered him with the standard answer - that people need money to take to the store to get food and clothes and toys, and that we can exchange money for the things we need and want. So then he asked - but why does the store need money? It turned out he was asking a much bigger question - why money? And it was one that I could think of no good way to answer - at least not to a 5 year old (or even to my 41 year old self). This question reminded me of the first lesson I am writing about in this series of lessons - where the question is - what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and the answer is - the age I will be on my next birthday - 42! And that lessons is - there will always be more question than answers.
As a child, I was always the one with millions of questions. I remember having a huge collection of encyclopedias on a shelf in my living room, and sometimes when I asked a question, my dad would suggest that I look up the answer, or he would ask “what do you think?” I don’t know if it was the best parenting ever, or if he (like me with my nephew) didn’t know the answer, but I am grateful that he encouraged me to fuel my curiosity with knowledge and research. However, that tendency to search out the answers gave me a huge attachment to having questions answered, and everything wrapped up in a neat bow. I hated those questions that I didn’t have the answers to, and unanswered questions would frustrate me as I sought different ways to view the question so that I could find the answer and move onto the next question. This was a fairly useful skill throughout school as I strived for excellence in my studies, and gravitated towards science and mathematics, the subjects which at the time seemed to hold the answers, even though they got more complicated as I got older.
However, as I got older, and I engaged in working with people, I began to realize that in life we don’t always get answers to the questions we have, and sometimes even when we do, the answers will not satisfy us, instead throwing up new questions of their own. I discovered that the absolutes I learned in science were sometimes (often) limited by the tools we have to measure, and our techniques, as well as our biases. And often the biggest limitation that we have when looking for absolutes, is the belief that there is an absolute - that there is a rule which we can bring concepts under that will always be followed in a way that we can comprehend. In short - I learned that in life, there are often more questions than answers.
I’ll be honest - I struggled with this concept. It was hard for me to accept it when things happened that I could unfair or heartbreaking - when I lost loved ones, when I thought about awful things that happened - whether they be natural disasters or man made. When I had questions about the world that there were no good answers for, or when I thought I understood something and then I discovered there was an added parameter that I hadn’t considered. And I know I am not alone. I was reminded of this recently when for our book club I reread “The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy”. Anyone who has read it would recognize the reference to the question at the beginning of this blog post, and this series - what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? This was a question that was asked in the book, and seeing how they dealt with it was a reminder to me that as people, we want to have the answers, to understand the world around us. But for me the lesson was that sometimes we won’t have the answers. A few of my own unanswered questions over my life have included:
Do poeple who take their own lives go to hell?
What is love?
How did someone in a world where there was no car think - hmmm I’ll invent a car?
Why do people who are creating solutions often not seek the opinions of those who they are creating the solutions for?
Where does culture come from?
Is there Predestination or do we create our own destiny?
And planes - how do they stay up? It’s like throwing a tin of sardines through the air!!!!!
And of course my nephew’s most recent question - why money?
The idea that there are more questions than answers is one that I am slowly getting my head around. It has only been in the last couple of years that I have become more comfortable with the unanswered questions that I have, and a big part of being ok with that has come through learning the value of the question. In fact I recently started reading a book (which I am slowly making my way through) - A more beautiful question - which looks at the art of inquiry. I was drawn to this book after I finally started to accept that there may be as much power in the asking of a question as there can be in the answering of it, and that sometimes our biggest discoveries will come not from answering the questions we have, but from asking better questions. And this will be my mission going forward - to try to focus as much on the questions that I ask as I do on the answers I am seeking, and to learn to sit with the idea that I may not get the answer at all - no matter how good my question is. And something that the author said has also stayed with me - sometimes to ask the most useful questions, I need to first accept that everything I know about the subject is wrong - something that I continue to work on daily.
So now I’m curious. What is your relationship to unanswered questions?
one unanswered question you have? I look forward to hearing your answers in the comments.
Until we meet again, I send you big love from a small island.
PS Inspired by my unanswered questions - the photo I took from outside my place a few days ago. What makes these beautiful sunset colours?