Quests and Questions—A Path to Your Self
Every other mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: “So? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?”
– Isidore I. Rabi, (1900-88), Nobel-laureate in physics
The knights of the Round Table sought a quest and then lived it—to the ends of the Earth. Through their quests, Arthur’s knights forged their identities. Their quests inspire and guide us as we recapitulate in our own lives their character-building trials.
Today, quests come to us as questions. They begin as tiny discrepancies between our felt experience and the conventional wisdom and end only when we either abandon ourselves and join the prevailing consensus or we bring conventional thought into alignment with our personal truth.
Instead of slaying dragons, we pose and answer questions. Our questions can be personal, political, aesthetic, scientific—anything. A question lies at the heart of any troubling confusion in our life.
Identifying a heartfelt question and pursuing it with integrity is no less demanding than chivalric questing used to be—and no less transformative. Questioning something that others take for granted may isolate you. Some will take you for a nobody and drop you. But if you can survive lonely vigils, surmount criticism, and endure disrespect, then the pursuit of a question is a contemporary path to finding out who you are.
The first step in a modern-day identity quest is to stop brushing our questions aside and take them to heart. This means putting them into words, no matter how sophomoric, outrageous, or politically incorrect they may sound. Once you’ve got a crude first draft of your question, you can begin revising it until suddenly you realize you can’t rest till you’ve found an answer. Pursuing a question may still take you to the ends of the Earth. Rarely do earnest attempts to answer well-formulated questions not yield at least a taste of enlightenment.
The best gifts I’ve ever received have been questions I couldn’t shake off. Good questions are better than good answers, in this sense: they give us purpose, whereas a good answer stops our exploring and makes us a teacher. Catching a good question—and most questions come uninvited and whispered, not shouted—is a skill to be cultivated, as Izzy Rabi’s mother knew. Those who learn to notice and follow their questions, never get old. When I taught physics at Columbia, I knew Rabi. In his sixties, he was as playful as my own children. I ran into him at a conference a decade later and he announced, “Today I am three score and ten plus ten percent.” Do the math and you’ll see it was his way of letting me know it was his 77th birthday.
I’ve often find that my first “answer” to a question, though it may feel like a breakthrough, later ceases to satisfy. Revisions proliferate, and may even bring about a reformulation of the original question. Recast, it gets back under my skin. Also, it’s not unusual to have several questions in play at a time. Progress on one question often leads to progress on another. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, a familiar old identity morphs into a new one.
Answering questions may not seem as glamorous as slaying dragons, but it’s a mistake to think of pursuing questions as mere intellectual exercise. Every one of my questions had its origin in emotional turmoil, and, until I found an answer, sent me questing far and wide.
A key criterion that an answer has to meet before it satisfies is that it must explain behavior not judge it—no matter how bizarre or even repugnant the behavior may be. For example, damning laziness or lying or bullying or prejudice, illuminates nothing, but examining these behaviors for what they reveal about power relationships is revelatory and holds the promise of changing them.
The classic example of substituting righteous judgment for sober understanding was dismissing Hitler as an evil madman. Partisan ideologues continue to make the same mistake today. Vilification reinforces in people the very behaviors we would like to change. Humiliation only stokes revenge. Even subtle condescension comes round to bite.
What does work is dignity. What’s required for individual and social wellbeing is dignity for all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That breathtakingly simple idea is what leapt out at me once I had answers to the apparently unrelated questions that I propose to share with you over the coming months.
I’ve already posted a few of these questions, and my personal answers:
• Why are we obsessed with sex?
• Why do we seek a partner?
• Why do we hate good-byes?
• What is the source of indignity?
• Who are the somebodies and nobodies?
In future, I’ll take up other questions that fueled quests, including:
• Who am I?
• What is intelligence?
• What is genius?
• What is enlightenment?
• What happens to us after we die?
• Are people the same the world over?
• Why are we fascinated by celebrities?
• Why are we drawn to mystery?
• Must love end?
• Why do we get bored?
• Why is it hard to admit we’re wrong?
• Why are we lazy? (Why do we procrastinate?)
• Why do we like to travel?
• Why do we want to be rich? famous?
• Why are we skeptical of do-gooders?
• Why do we lie? exaggerate? hate?
• Why do we use drugs?
• Why are we prejudiced?
• Why is there torture? rape?
• Is there a better game than war?
• Why is life hard?
Some of these questions are cuddly dog-sized dragons. Others are fire-breathing tyrannosauruses. All they have in common is that they grabbed hold of me.
Your own questions will announce themselves to you—if you’ll let them. There are no “right” answers, only right pursuit. Follow your “dragons” and they’ll lead you to your self. Slay even one, and you’ve earned a place at the Round Table.