Whose Questions Are You Answering?

We ask and answer questions every day.  When a colleague or supervisor asks about the status of a project, that’s (usually) a straightforward question deserving of a straightforward answer.

That’s not the type of question that’s been on my mind in recent weeks.

There are much more difficult questions that are pointing toward important — even life changing —decisions.  Should I move?  Is it time for graduate studies?  Where should we send our children to school? Am I spending my money wisely?  Should I consider a job change?  Is it time to reach out to a colleague or friend who is struggling?  What is the right response to today’s political environment?  When is the right time to retire?  How should I deal with an aging parent?


Too often I find myself facing those types of questions as framed by someone else.  We are — in effect — asking and answering someone else’s questions.

“Many of us are busy and anxious. We are social animals: We listen for the culturally normative thing to do among our friends and, most often, follow it. This is what Aristotle, and later a lot of Internet evangelists, called the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and what Hannah Arendt might have called the ‘banality of evil.’”

In listening for and following the culturally normative thing to do among our friends, we make decisions about where to live, the best schools for our children, how to spend our money, where we work, when to provide advice, how to vote, and on and on based on what others are telling us.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But there are some questions that should force you to decide just whose values you are adopting.  The writer Courtney E. Martin frames it as, “…there are certain decisions, I’m realizing, that should make my heart ache, if not break.”  She notes that at least one friend of hers had a breakthrough when — while agonizing over a decision — someone asked her the simple question, “What is your work here?”

As you face the questions in your life that really matter, think about what your work should be in that context.  And make sure you first understand just whose questions you are answering.

Have a good week.

More to come…


The World Has Need of You

Dome at Union Chapel

The dome at Union Chapel

I was reading several essays by the Quaker educator, activist, and author Parker Palmer recently when I came across one that included a poem with the title, “The World Has Need of You.”  He was drawn to this work by poet Ellen Bass in part because of her line “It’s a hard time to be human.”

Any time can be a hard time to be human, but we do find ourselves living in what can charitably be called interesting—perhaps historic—times.  Palmer makes the point that each of our lives, words, and actions makes a difference, especially in times of stress and widespread anger.  The world needs us to think and then act broadly and deeply, with integrity and charity, as part of a community.

Palmer links to another essay by the writer Courtney Martin that deals with first questions.  First questions that stay with us for a lifetime, such as an eight-year-old Dorothy Day, witnessing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and shaping the rest of her life around the question of why we wait until times of stress to care for others without judgment instead of “Why can’t people always care for one another unconditionally?” First questions that drive us to understand that the world needs us.

Detail from Triumphs and Laments

Detail from Triumphs and Laments by William Kentridge (Rome, 2016)

All of this has me thinking about my own first questions, and what actions the world—at home, work, in community, and globally—needs from me now.

Have a good week.

More to come…