What Can We Do? Becoming the Question

Last month I posted “Letting Go of Despair and Hope,” partly in response to the question of what can we do about privilege and oppression and the injustice and suffering they cause.

It is a question I often hear asked in a way that suggests there is an answer already worked out somewhere that I might pass along, and for many years I tried to do just that with suggestions about education, organizing, and activism.

But then I began to notice it taking longer and longer for the words to come. I felt impatient with the question. I found myself thinking, I don’t have an answer. Why are you asking me? How would I know? How would anyone?

Needless to say, this is not how public speakers are supposed to respond, especially with university audiences who expect you to know or at least have an educated guess. That’s why they invited you, after all. And so I soldiered on.

Then, slowly, it began to dawn on me that the question I wanted to respond to was not the one being asked. I was listening to a deeper and larger kind of question that does not have an answer that is knowable in the usual sense, that you can look up on Google or turn into an item on a test.

Because the answer does not yet exist.

Pointing to ‘the answer’ is not what such questions are for. Their purpose is to shape our lives in ways that encourage answers to emerge from our lives and our engagement with the questions as part of our lives.

It is like the artist who lives the question of how does beauty reveal the nature of reality. The question is always there, consciously or not, not to be answered and done with, but to inform every observation, every feeling, every thought. The artist lives by the question, and the art is the artist’s response. It is around the question that the artist organizes a life, moment to moment, the studio, the books lying open on the table, what is on the walls, the view out the window, where do they go, whom do they meet, what do they talk about, what do they do, their life inseparable from the question and the answer unfolding from it.

In trying to change the world, we must have such questions, because there is no manual for dismantling patriarchy or the system of white privilege or for getting from global capitalism to an economy that serves the needs of ordinary people and the planet. We don’t know how to bring about such change because it has never been done before. Even revolutions are not all they’re cracked up to be, including our own, having a way of reproducing in another form the very thing they were intended to undo.

What we know about how to change the world and envision what it could be has come from people living those questions day after day, year after year, by themselves and, more important, together. They could not see what to do without knowing where they were and what they were up against, and the only way to discover that is to engage with what we do not know, to ask the questions in one way or another every day in the context of what is happening now. The answers do not come all at once or in neat little packages, but in bits and pieces that take a while to get connected in our minds, or someday in the minds of those who haven’t yet been born.

Standing in front of audiences, the question that had eluded me, the one I wanted to talk about, was how to make ourselves, our own lives, a part of that.

Of course we make use of what we already know, the practical steps and strategies contained in the answers we have. But these are only the beginning, in part because they come out of and are shaped by our participation in the very system we want to change. Which makes it even more important to also make ourselves part of the process of carrying those questions from one day to the next without the promise of a ready answer, just as the shape and meaning of our lives comes only through the living.

We must become the question, with the living of our lives the response.

For the questions I have become, it means angling my life in their direction so they are never far away and I am always bumping into them. Why is there so much injustice and unnecessary suffering in the world, how does it happen, what keeps it going, what does it have to do with me? What does it mean to be a human being, what does it require? How can truth that is painful and disturbing, that people do not want to hear, be told in ways that are whole and so beautiful and compelling that it cannot be ignored? Who or what am I working for, in service to what? What have I come here to do? What is this?

I must sustain a place inside myself in which the questions live as part of who I am and out of which the answers come from how I live my life as a result. I position them so that I can no more escape them than myself looking back from the mirror—in the books I read, the people I know, what we talk about, what I think about as I’m driving down the road, how I choose to act in the world in ways large and small. To become a question is an undertaking, something to be done, a commitment, a practice, a discipline, a way of living from the question into answers that are always works in progress.

Gandhi said that we must become the change we want to see in the world, and I wonder now if this is what he meant—that our becoming is the change and the change lies in our becoming. And because the change he speaks of is not merely personal, but both in the world and of it, then we must find ways to become the question with one another.

That is what we can do.


If you liked this post, you might also want to read “The Hazards of Being Real.”

4 responses to “What Can We Do? Becoming the Question

  1. Mary Friday, January 17, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Your post resonates and reminds me of Rilke:

    “. . . I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903, in Letters to a Young Poet

    When I was younger I was frustrated by this idea of patience. It felt a lot like doing nothing about injustice. But now I realize the enormous challenge and work involved in holding those questions before me, in every act, in every thought, in every mood. A life’s work. Like learning to love.

  2. geniphur Friday, January 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Thank you. Your thought process has lifted a burden from my shoulders that was causing me the same anxiety you described feeling. I was requiring myself to solve the problem before I could release those feelings, not realizing that the act of wanting to solve the problem was the first step in solving the problem, and accepting that my continual mindfulness was going to have to be “enough” for myself to relinquish the anxiety. Because in the end, the anxiety was slowing the process by diverting my attention from the actual goal. Now I just have to remind myself each time that anxiety starts to slip back in the door that my thoughts, actions, and speech relating to wanting to solve the problem are the beginnings of solving the problem. I wish I could have stated these thoughts as eloquently as you did.

  3. Lis Friday, January 17, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Living with the question implies, as you put it so well, living a life where one is bumping into the questions all the time. Thank you for that.

  4. corey Friday, January 17, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Incredible as always, Allan. Thank you for pondering, for asking the questions why and who am I. We will find a way, all of us, collectively, one at a time.

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