The year of questions

New Year's Eve 2012, wearing my Warrior Dash hat. What?


I’m not so into resolutions. They’re a wonderful thing. I have no problem with them. It’s just that rules don’t work so well for me. Immediately, as soon as there’s a rule, I just want to break it. I also don’t like to get in trouble. I know, that’s a ridiculous contradiction. I am a woman of mystery.

Anyway, I DO believe in fresh starts, daily ones if possible. I am in constant need of refocusing my intention and my energy (OH how I can get off track), and I think it takes a certain kind of goal setting to do that. This year I had a new idea. I’ve decided to take a writer’s approach. Instead of resolutions, I’m giving my year a theme. Whatever happens, my intention is to return to this theme, with the goal of making it ever-prevalent, an automatic part of my thinking. To make it instinctive.

The list of themes that could do me good is possibly endless, but I had to choose one and only one. Over-committing is probably one my my most fatal flaws. Luckily the decision was easy because just a few days ago, I found it – of course – in a bookstore. It was on a magnet:

“I want to ask you, as clearly as I can, to bear with patience all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were rooms yet to enter or books written in a foreign language. Don’t dig for answers that can’t be given you yet: you live them now. For everything must be lived. Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday, you will gradually, without noticing, live into the answer.”

This is a quote from “Letters to a a Young Poet” by Ranier Maria Rilke, a book I read in my early twenties, and yet I didn’t remember this quote at all. This is partly because my memory is wretched – another thing to work on; OH the endless list – but also because of my state of mind when I was reading that book. I remember that part very well. I was doing the exact opposite of what Rilke is suggesting. I was looking for answers. I was desperate for answers. I was a sophomore in college, and my friend Carol sent me “Letters to a Young Poet” in response to a long, sad letter I had written her. It was a letter full of questions. Carol sent me the perfect reply – live the questions – and yet it’s taken me more than a decade to arrive at a place where I could take it in.

So here I am, Rilke, Carol, 2012. Living the questions. I’ll let you know how it goes.


8 thoughts on “The year of questions

  1. I feel compelled to answer your question, Mr. B Patty. Is that poor etiquette? I’ve never left a comment before, but this is a really fun subject, in my opinion. And, also in my opinion, no one can tell you what living a question means. I can tell you what it means to me, and that might point you in the right direction. When I live a question -and I’m living several of them at the moment – I allow it to sit next to me like a companion. But instead of worrying about it (what should I do about that, do I go back to grad school, how do I proceed with this. . . ) I take what comes in the everyday as clues. When an idea hits or something links up, even in a small way, I follow it. It doesn’t lead to the answers, at least not right away, but rather it leads to more of the stuff Rilke calls “living”. Does that help?

    Really cool stuff, Jules. And JTTY, Dan thinks my new year’s resolution should be “to get into more trouble”, because, like you, I hate to follow rules and hate to get in trouble. What do you think?

  2. I adore having someone else answer my philosopher brother’s questions. You did a marvelous job! For me, Bradley, it means every time a I get bogged down or stalled or panicked by whatever question is pressing on me, I will say to that question, Well come on, let’s get on with it, and then I will keep going. I’ll pay attention to the lessons that pop up when I travel with my questions present in my mind. I think that’s a lot like what you said, Carol.

    And yes, Carol, you should definitely get in more trouble (Brad, you should not.). Mostly because I’d love to see Dan’s reaction when you take his advice and run with it. I’ll HELP!

  3. Dear Carol,

    It’s always nice to be found compelling!

    I understand what it is to live with a question, but I’m still not sure what it is to live one. Let’s say the question is, “Should I go to graduate school?” You can live with that question for a year or forever, but you aren’t avoiding answering it by doing so — you’re answering it in the negative. Every day that you don’t decide to go, you’re deciding not to go: after all, to have a genuine option to go, you’d have to decide to take positive steps in the direction of going, like arranging for transcripts and taking entrance exams. Living with the question is deciding the question in the negative, at least for the present; but without the peace of mind that comes from admitting that you have decided not to go for now, and can therefore stop worrying at it.

    What would seem like a possible way of “living questions” without answering them would be to go try them. If the question is “How do we stop hunger in Africa?” you might simply join a ministry or USAID or an NGO and go try, looking for new ways each day.

    It turns out, though, you did have an answer on this model: the answer to the question is “Try different things until some combination works.”

    There are some questions that cannot be answered — e.g. “Do there exist other universes in which Elvis is still alive?” — and these can be lived with without answering them. But I don’t know how you would live the answer, unless it was by moving to Vegas and starting a new career in impersonation!

  4. How did I become the mother of two philosophers? Do the mothers of other philosophers worry as much as I? Which philosopher should I spend more time worrying about today? I guess I have a theme for several years to come. I love you guys!

  5. If two philosophers are arguing in the woods, and one of them is right, would anybody else hear it?

    Their mother would.


    I see your point, B Patty, and yes, you are right. Not making a decision is often the same thing as deciding against it. But I think Rilke proposes the option of suspension. Bobby Fischer advises, “Don’t move until you see it.” Rilke suggests that it is possible to have a calm heart during these times, when we can’t see it, when we don’t know which direction to go in. During these times, we remain open to both options. We may or may not take steps towards them. Personally, I don’t think Juli is all that worried about the existence of altered states of Elvis, but I could be wrong. I agree that we aren’t supposed to know everything. However, it could be argued that if the desire to know arrives, the path towards its resolution must also be possible. And now, my friends, I think I have caused enough trouble for one day!

  6. I’m exhausted. I don’t have any questions anymore. I just want to go to bed. 🙂

    Thanks, Carol, for that marvelous reply to my big brother. I actually don’t even understand the altered states of Elvis bit, so I’m certainly not worried about it. The fact that I didn’t understand half of what’s going on here, that’s worrisome.

    I’m not really much of an Elvis fan. But I think Bobby Fisher is a philosopher we could all learn from.

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