Questions

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Questions

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

I have always been full of questions. As a child, I quickly learned not to annoy the adults in my life with the endless stream of inquiries that rolled through my head. To be honest, it was tough to surpress. Luckily, I learned early on that many of the answers I sought could be found in books. I became an avid reader at an early age.

Things haven’t changed much. I’m still full of questions and still read incessantly. It’s just that now most of the information I seek is found on the wondrous inter-web.

When I was in college, I worked as a server in a popular restaurant. Everyday, over and over again, customers would ask the same two questions. One was what type of salad dressings did we offer. The other was what type of soft drinks did we serve. The other servers and I would complain about how annoying this was. Come on people. Unless this is your first time in a restaurant you should know this.…coke, diet coke, sprite, thousand island or blue cheese.

One day as I was suppressing an eye roll and large sigh after being asked one of these two questions for the fiftieth time that day, it dawned on me that the person asking was doing so because he really wanted to know. Here he was in our restaurant turning over his hard earned dollars to have a lovely culinary experience. He just wanted to be sure there were no unexpected options. What if we served Pepsi products? (We didn’t.) What if we had special house dressing? (We did.) He just wanted information to make the best choice. He was asking because he didn’t know.

Something shifted in me that day. I thought about all the people who rolled their eyes and sighed at my questions with annoyance. I thought about all the questions I didn’t ask for fear of angering or irritating or being dismissed. I made a decision then and there that anytime someone asked me a question, I would honor it and do my best to share what I knew. I decided that even if I’d been asked the question a million and one times before, I would act as if it was the first time I had ever heard that question and I would treat the person asking it respectfully.

I’m a strong proponent of the idea that there are no stupid questions. If someone takes the trouble to think about something to the point of formulating an inquiry, then the least I can do is honor it with a thoughtful answer. It might be nice to live in a world where everyone already knew all of the important stuff, but that’s not how it is.

We are put here to solve problems and seek a better way. We are put here to learn and grow and evolve. The only way we can do better is to learn better. All learning be it math or matters of spirituality starts with a question. It always starts with a question. Always. To ignore any question is nothing short of cruelty. If one has an answer, they also have the responsibility to share it.

As a teacher to middle school students, at the beginning of every class, I would write a question on the board that related to the day’s lesson. My student’s would spend a few minutes pondering it on paper before we discussed it as a class. One day one of my eighth grade students raised his hand and asked me how long his answer had to be. I responded that it should be at least a paragraph, maybe two. He then asked, “Mrs. Stewart, what’s a paragraph?”

When I stated teaching, I made the decision to honor all student questions the same way I honored questions in my everyday life. So, true to form I stopped what I was doing and explained to him what a paragraph was. He nodded and began to write.

After class, he came up to me and thanked me for telling him what a paragraph was. As I busily shuffled papers, he continued. “I’ve asked this question every year since I was in second grade and you’re the first teacher who has answered it for me.”

He had my full attention now. I turned and looked at him. In shock, I stammered, “you’re kidding?” I asked him how teachers responded to him when he asked the question. He said they blew him off because they assumed he already knew the answer and thought he was just trying to disrupt class or avoid work.

I found that by thoughtfully and considerately answering every single student question including the ones that were used for the avoidance of work and for comedic value (my favorites) that the students realized two things. First they realized I would take every thing they said seriously. Second, they realized that I respected them.

No tween-ager wants to look stupid. For the most part, after having me spend several minutes earnestly answering several of their non-serious inquiries pretty much ended the game. They knew they could trust me and from then on our class discussions remained on-topic.

While I believe there are no stupid questions, I do believe that some questions are better than others. I think it’s important that we really contemplate where we want to end up once the question is answered and formulate and reformulate our questions until we get to the place we need to be.

For many years, I asked the question, “why am I unhappy?” You better believe I found thousands of answers to this question. The thing is after a lot of knowledge accured, I was still unhappy. Then I changed the question and asked what I believe to be a better question, “how can I be happy?” I found thousands of answers to this question, too. But the difference was after all the questioning, I was happy.

I think we often get trapped asking the wrong questions. Why does my marriage suck should be replaced with how can I make my marriage work? Why am I fat should be replaced with how do I get healthy? Why won’t this dog stop barking should be replaced with what is causing the dog to bark and how can I remove the cue?

Good or bad, right or wrong, the question is the beginning and necessary. Therefore, I will continue to ask questions even if others find me annoying and I will answer any question that comes my way or at least help point the person to possible answers.

We are put here imperfect. We’ve given our great big brains for a reason. Now, let us accept this and start asking all the questions we need to ask to make ourselves and our world a better. In addition, when we are questioned, let us consider it an honor instead of an annoyance. Let us realize that someone is trusting us to help them on their journey. Let us honor their journey with thoughtful answers.

If you enjoyed this essay, please feel free to share it with others. I don’t mind.

8 Comments

  1. Such a good post.

  2. You are such a good person, Denise. This post brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not even sure why. But it also flooded me with warm feelings of respect for you. Again. :).

    • I’m sure you too have a lot of questions, Holly. We’ll just keeping asking. The answers will eventually find us.

  3. Oh, Denise, your warmth and loveliness shine through this post. What a great soul you have.

  4. I love this post, Denise. I, too, am always seeking to understand so yes, I had a lot of questions growing up. As a former teacher my heart cracked open when you spoke of the student who asked about the paragraph. Lucky child to finally land in a classroom with listening ears and a compassionate heart.

    Right now I’m in that stage of life where my parents are asking the same questions I just answered. I feel privileged to respond again, with the same answer. Thank you for standing with me in the power of “reframe.” Pretty magical isn’t it?

    • I think it’s a beautiful thing to have the love and patience to just be in the moment and respond as if it’s the first time the question was asked.

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