The Answer Will Come
by Jennifer Paros
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”
--Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve always thought my youngest son’s proclivity for asking a lot of questions was a great thing – intellectual curiosity and learning hard at work. Recently, however, while watching a movie with him in a theater and fielding so many inquiries, it occurred to me that all those questions and his demand for the answers were actually starting to interfere with him understanding what he was watching. Instead of trusting himself to figure it out, he was bombarding him (and me) with questions. I found myself thinking that if he could just be at peace with not knowing for a bit, everything would soon become clearer to him. For there are two ways of understanding something: one based on the study of it in parts, sort of an anatomical approach, and one based on the witnessing of it as a whole unfolding.
Years ago, in high school English, we were reading Faulkner’s Light In August. One day, our teacher Dr. Lehman, who liked to go through stories bone by bone until they were thoroughly taken apart, stood before us, one arm folded across her chest, the other holding the book, reading aloud the passage we were to discuss. And then she reached a particular word - a word she suspected we did not know. She asked us for the definition and no one responded.
“PEOPLE,” she said, closing the book, “HAVE YOU NO INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY- AT ALL?”
Everyone was silent. If intellectual curiosity was to be defined as looking up every word we didn’t know - then we had none.
In striving to understand every inch of the story, the book had become lifeless. The experience had turned into a fatiguing puzzle with constant questions to answer and no sense of the vitality that had once carried the storyline forward and compelled the writer to write it. But Dr. Lehman did not seem to feel she was doing her job unless she took us on this trek through all the vocabulary and minutiae - until we had figuratively rebuilt the cow out of hamburger.
And so, we went on her journey, hostages many of us, but the truth was, in the end, at least for me, not only did I not enjoy the book, I did not understand it any better than I would have if left alone. The striving to answer and explain all of it had made the book more difficult for me and less interesting.
Questions can and do lead to greater understanding. But sometimes, all those questions, and more importantly, all of that scrambling to answer all those questions, creates a lot of noise and runs interference in truly connecting to and learning from what we are experiencing. Sometimes, it’s more important and valuable to get quiet and allow the story to unfold before us. It’s sort of like standing next to a painter who’s just starting his painting and saying with every brush stroke, “What’s that going to be? What’s that? Why blue? Is that a house?”
On occasion, when I’m writing, I spend much effort and energy asking myself about what I’m writing, and I end up doing more talking at me than listening to me. There are questions I ask that are helpful in furthering the creative process, and then there is excessive questioning that is about lack of trust in myself as well as lack of patience in finding the answers.
“Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.”
In that darkened movie theater, I was convinced that if my son were to let go and trust he would get it. He might not grasp all the parts, but gradually he would come to understand and the story’s mystery would reveal itself to him in a way that was meaningful to him. But when I am alone writing, I often forget that the same is true for me – that too much striving to answer all my questions actually disrupts my ability to hear what I do know. There is much to be said for waiting, seeing, and trusting oneself. And that’s true of understanding anything in life.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.