By Larry Miller
Is there anything more useful in life, more irritating, more demanding than questions?
Questions? you ask.
See? You just asked a question. Okay, so it’s true that I asked it on your behalf. And unless you are the smartest person who ever lived, and already have most of the answers, I am sure that you probably have discovered that you ask far more questions than you give answers, It is a natural thing.
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Man is a curious breed. He gets brought into a hostile environment, with no sense of where he is, or who or what he is, or why he is where he is, or how he is what he is. Confused by that bit of convoluted reasoning? Good. Because I just asked another question.
The answers to my twisted reasoning are simple. Man wasn’t invited; he just came. And in the process, he brought along a feeling of disorientation. He was taken away from a reliable food source and had to locate the source without help, and he couldn’t see, at least not right away.
Was it confusing? Well, of course. That is why God gave him the one thing that would help him to cope: Questions.
“Questions?” you ask.
Like: Where the heck am I? What’s going on here? And just where is “here”? And what is that soft tissue, or thing, that I am now lying on?
Perhaps you think I’m making too much of all that. Well, who wouldn’t, after nine months of easy confinement and warmth and a constant supply of nourishment, and then have it all taken away? After all, our entrance was not exactly what a sane person would have subscribed to, what with being abruptly dangled upside down by our feet and then spanked.
What do you mean they had to do it that way in order to get us to take a breath? Why couldn’t they have left us where we were?
And please note all the questions I just asked.
I have news for whoever it was that spanked me; I would have let them know my displeasure at my sudden alienation, without the spanking. And, by the way, couldn’t they have turned up the temperature? Just a little? Which, if you haven’t noticed, are more questions.
Okay! Okay! So it is what it is. But I am going to get revenge. You want me to talk? You want me to let loose a squeal? You want me to let you know how I feel about things? Well, I’ll do more than that. I am going to ask questions, and more questions, and even more questions. And I guarantee you that, somewhere along the way, someone is going to say: Why do you have to ask so many
questions? Then you’ll be sorry, because I will answer that question with even more questions, a process that will prove to be annoying, even vexing, if you are a parent.
Okay! So how do I present this treatise in a logical and clear and neat manner? And wouldn’t you know it, but I just asked another question.. See what I mean? And that is another question.
Questions! They are in a realm of their own. They completely take over our lives. They rule our lives. They interrupt our lives. They give our lives greater purpose. They can frustrate us. Oh, yes, they certainly can frustrate us.
And it’s a matter of questions of all kinds, both the trite and the profound. From “What make dogs bark and cats purr?” to “Does man have a purpose?”
I don’t know who it was, but supposedly some wag, years ago, said that we need to question everything. Personally, I think that is sound advice. However, I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who advised answering everything, which is just as well, since I never met anyone who had all the answers, although 1 have met a few who thought they had all the answers. Yeah, I know; you have too.
Ah, but getting back to those questions! Breathed there, in the tiny minds of the newcomers, questions? I believe so. I can’t guarantee it to be so, but confinement of thirty-six weeks, in a state of relaxation, ought to allow a being, albeit a new being, plenty of time to think things over. So, I figure he, or she, as the case may be, arrives with plenty of questions, and please allow me to be a little repetitious, if you find that I have already approached the issue. Anyway, here are some questions to consider:
What the heck is going on here?
Where’s that appendage that I found an hour ago that supplied me with supper?
How come l am being handled by so many different pairs of hands? Would you please stop passing me around!
And please knock off that cute baby-talk! It’s not cute, it sounds childish. You’re supposed to be adults, for land’s sake.
And those are just the beginnings of what is to come. You wanted me to talk. So, I warn you now. You had better get ready to give me some answers, cuz I am going to ask so many questions that there are going to he times when you’ll have second thoughts about bringing me into this world. I kid you not!
One might think that babies are ignorant when they are brought into this world, but I have to tell you, here and now, that babies aren’t as stupid as they pretend to be. I ought to know; I was a baby myself, once.
It’s just that for the first year or so, they are quite content to be pampered, fed, changed, cuddled, and allowed to sleep life away. Thus, there isn’t much of a need for them to make a lot of noise. Although they are quick to sound an alarm when they feel something is wrong. And, boy, do those alarms do the trick! You rush to them, in a state of panic, and convene with one another about what might have gone wrong. You wring your hair. You sob. And cringe. And wonder about it all.
Hah! That’ll teach you.
From a personal point of view, after looking back through a great number of years, I have come to the conclusion that the early years of a person’s life are, generally speaking, somewhat satisfactory. Not wonderfully great. But you parents get a B-minus for trying. Yes, that first period is, at least, acceptable. The rest of the years seemed to become too much like school; learn or regret. Babies learned, and the others, those in authority, learned to regret. What follows that first year are what social behaviorists call childhood. Supposedly teaming was required of us: how to crawl, how to stand, how to walk, how to placate those other beings with hugs.
And oh, how marvelous it seemed to our parents when we took those first steps. One would think that we had conquered space, or invented some miraculous machine.
“My little Harold crawled all the way across the living room, Agnes. He is so smart.”
That comment must be balanced with a remark spoken to her husband, two weeks later, after he arrived home from work: “John, I need a break. Little Harold knocked over my favorite figurine. He crawled right up on the small end table and managed to grab it. I don’t know how I am ever going to get my work done if I have to keep following him around, all day.”
Learning to get around? Was that supposed to be such a big thing?
Heck! A water buffalo, or a giraffe, for that matter, arrives in this world by being dropped off, weak-legged, staggering, but upright, and within a few minutes is romping all over the place. And the parents don’t shout hurrah. What’s the big deal?
Actually, birth wasn’t too much of an ordeal. But I have to admit that the older I got, the harder and sometimes harsher the lessons. Especially that lesson of obedience. Oh, yeah, we had to learn, and learn, and learn some more.
“No, you can’t pull the cat’s tail?”
“Leave your grandpa alone; he needs to take a nap.”
“Go ask your father.”
“Go ask your mother.”
“Stay out of our bedroom when we’re sleeping.”
Ignorant? You think young ones are totally ignorant? You think we arrived without some kind of defensive behavior? You think we were totally helpless? Now, there are some great questions for you to think about.
And as far as being told no. I’ve got news for you. We have the perfect comeback to being told “No.” It’s “Why?”
Why this? Why that? Why can’t I? I’ll get back to these questions later.
I like questions. They can produce helpful advice. They can be used to illicit information. They can be used to vex our parents. They can be used to pass time away. There are zillions of uses for questions.
Obviously there are degrees of importance regarding questions. Some questions are meaningless. Some are so filled with wonder that we can only imagine. Some are bothersome.
Take, for instance: “Why can’t people get along?” Now, that is a mind-blower. It opens so many different worlds. International politics. Family reunions. Awards ceremonies. Sporting contests.
Want to start World War III? Just get a close family together and ask them what their political leanings are. If your family is like most families, you might find it better to not ask the question.
And worse than that, try asking people about religion. I did not say about God. I said religion. I have found that the only true religion is that which is held by another person.
But to be perfectly frank, getting back to what this little treatise is all about, questions deserve to be seen in a more general sense, that of one human being wondering why another human being can’t see a different point of view without flying into a rage.
As we grow physically and mentally-hopefully we grow mentally-we learn how to use questions to our advantage. “Why can’t I do that?” or “How come Henry gets to see that movie while I can’t” or “Why was I born?”
Ah, now that last one is a winner. But be careful about the answer that might come your way, especially from an exasperated mother, “There are times when I wonder why,” she might reply.
The wonderful world that we are born into becomes one that seeks to avoid giving out few answers. And I admit that, at times, frustration sets when the answers elude me.
I’m not talking about the simple questions that come along with the growing process. I am talking about the really big things, those things that have taunted even the greatest of philosophers.
Why are the stars where they are? And how did they get to where they are?
Why are there so many religions? Why does water evaporate, especially when the temperature is only fifty? Oh! By the way, ironically, I discovered the answer to this last question quite by accident, as the answer popped out at me in a novel that I was reading. Apparently there are some solids that can change into vapors without going through any different stages. Snow, for example, is one of those solids that does that. Supposedly the process is called sublimation.
I am not inclined to accept that answer to the question. Can scientists give me a plausible answer that makes me able to swallow something that seems to defy the simplest principles of physics? And, by the way, I just asked another question.
Okay. Okay! Let’s accept that answer and presume that it is true. But why do those particular solids have that capability? A hal Don’t have an answer? And, again, as before, that is another question.
All that thinking reminds me about some more curious questions I have. Why is there such a thing as gravity? Where does gravity come from? What, or who, invented it? And can we rely on it to be constant and reliable?
Don’t you just love questions? Which is another question.
Fun, isn’t it?
Why do tadpoles turn into frogs? Why don’t they become turkeys? Why did God invent rainbows? Why is there a place of punishment that supposedly lasts forever? Do you believe in God?
Ah, the world of questions. And if you will be kind enough to reflect back to something I said earlier, you will understand why I cannot piece this whole thing together in a logical and orderly and neat fashion. Just about the time that I try to organize my thoughts, more questions intrude.
Questions are, for me, a lot of fun. They no longer frustrate me. Well, not all of the time, anyway.
One of the biggest questions I have is: Why are there so many different languages? And please don’t quote to me the story about the pyramid in Babylon. Unless you can answer why it is there are similar pyramids in South America, and Central America, and Eastern Europe, and… Enough, already!
I like to think about a conversation between Huck Finn and Big Jim, from Mark Twain’s immortal novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” In response to a point that Huck makes about the French people, Jim asks Huck: “Why, Huck, doan’ de French people talk de same way we does?”
Stupid question? I don’t think so. Silly question? I don’t think so.
Consider Huck’s answer: “No, Jim, you couldn’t understand a word they said-not a single word.”
I, too, would like to know why it is that within a radius of about three or four-hundred miles, a person in Paris, France needs to be able to speak Danish, Swedish, Norweigian, English, French, Italian, Polish, German, and a few other languages, in order to be able to communicate clearly. Heck, in the United States, only one language is used to communicate with people who live more than a thousand miles away. The accents might be slightly different, but an understanding as to what is said is possible. Even if they talk Canadian. Eh?
It seems, to me, that Jim is the more logical and intelligent of the two. It is Jim who, in his seemingly peculiar question, is asking the question that I asked earlier in this essay: “Why can’t we get along with each other?” And the answer is in the form of another question: “How can we get along with each other if we can’t understand each other?”
I once used a question as a social aid, in order to get a group of men to talk with each other. A group of us meet every Tuesday morning, at our church, supposedly to do some needful work, but more so to talk while eating donuts and drinking coffee. On one particular morning, the usual conversation about politics had dribbled away, and a quietude had taken hold. So I asked my friends: “Why are we here?”
They all looked curiously at me.
“What do you mean?” one friend replied.
“Why are we even alive?” I answered. “Why are we here, on this earth?”
The looks on their faces told me a lot. They had never given much thought to why we are here. They had avoided the subject. I guess they take things for granted. And what I wanted them to consider was the importance of life, the importance of taking our places in a grand scheme that is beyond our imaginations.
I guess the question was beyond their consideration. There ensued a period of dead silence. That is, if silence can be said to die. Can it? Oh, and that is another question.
Questions! Oh, the mysterious, miraculous world we live in. How can we accept our places if we never ask questions? How can we grow? And excel? And move forward?
It was questions that drove Columbus. And Buddha. And Curie. And Galileo. And Plato.
Every great discovery began with a question.
In my thirty-plus years of teaching, I discovered that I had not the need to “teach” as much as to ask questions. My students came armed with questions, and all too often they asked the very questions that should have been asked in the home.
Now, before I sound as if I were a giant of understanding, I have to tell you that I am a father of three, grandparent of seven, and great-grandparent of ten. And I am sure that, all too often, I failed in that blurry area called parenting. Too often I missed the opportunity to raise my parental evaluation in the eyes of my children. Too often I brushed aside their queries. The easy way out, it is called.
How sad! Parenting is the greatest opportunity for human beings to pass on knowledge, to encourage, to gently countermand, when necessary. It is no wonder that the greatest complaint my students made during classroom discussions was: “How come my parents don’t listen to me?”
What a weighty question! It opens a door that is not often entered by parents.
Sometimes it is not a question, at all, but is, instead, a cry of anguish, a cry that can only be considered when parents recognize it for what it is.
Not all questions are of such serious matters. I like to think of some of them as fun-time considerations. My unorderly list of questions bedazzles me. It doesn’t take much to bedazzle me. Over a period of a lifetime, the questions have changed from the bizarre to the inane to the truly important.
How do babies come?
How do you know there is a God?
Will you tie my shoe, Mom?
How come you didn’t tell me that Grandma died last night?
Did you know that Mrs. Crossman kissed the milkman?
Why can’t I go see that movie? Jane’s dad is letting her go.
Why do I have to memorize the dates on the list?
Are UFO’s real?
You like Hazel more than you like me, don’t you? What’s so good about living in Florida?
How come you didn’t remember our anniversary?
Had enough, already? And, by the way, that is another question. Did you notice?
How come I have to eat peas?
Why don’t they play nicer music in the grocery stores?
Why do countries keep shooting at others, and bombing others, and purposely starving others? I am tempted to keep going on and on, to write down every question that pops into my mind. But that would be insane, wouldn’t it? Which is the best way to end this treatise. Isn’t it????