Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.