“Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” ~Nancy Willard
I love the color orange. It makes me think of a beautiful ripe papaya, the calming shade of a monk’s robe, and the tapered candles my grandfather held in his hands to pray.
I don’t know if it’s simply this or the prayer chants that rose from temples along the rural Lao countryside, but when I think on these things from my childhood, I feel peace.
Do we romanticize our past? Do we sandpaper out the rough, dark spaces in our memories and label them “the good ‘ole days?” Is that why there is so much longing for simpler times, because our present is too overwhelming and difficult, and the future is uncertain and frightening?
Perhaps there is some truth to that. If I were to look deeper, I’d realize that not all of my childhood memories were the stuff of children’s story books.
Orange was also the color that lit up the night sky when B-52’s were dropping bombs over my childhood country. One minute, I found myself admiring fireworks from an outdoor stairway (typical of Lao homes built on poles), and the next moment, I was flung to the ground.
Someone—a stranger with no thought for his own safety—snatched me from that stairway in the nick of time. When the bombing ceased, we found the stairs and half of the house completely obliterated.
The house had belonged to my mother’s friend, who sat kneeling on the ground crying. She wasn’t crying because her house went up in flames. She was crying because after being separated from her small children, they were now running toward the safety of her arms.
After my own mother found me, only then did the stranger who had been protecting me finally let go of my hand. In my confusion, I didn’t remember his name. And now, even the memory of his face is fading.
But the stranger left an unmistakable legacy. He not only saved a child’s life but also left her spirit intact.
While there was crying all around me, I stared calmly out at the scene of destruction and could only summon up one overriding emotion: invincibility. I escaped death! From this day forward, I told myself, nothing will ever make me afraid again.
But memories have a way of dimming over time, don’t they?
We raced through our pubescent and teen years to become adults. We took adulthood to mean freedom, adventure, and ultimately, reaching the summit of our dreams. We readily followed a prescriptive path. Yet, upon arriving, we learned that the reality was far from the reality we imagined.
To want anything different, we would be swimming upstream. We would be alone. And who wants to be alone? As humans, we learned to survive by getting along with others.
It’s as if we are demonized by our ambitions. We feel the constant need for striving. The call to do more and be more. That we can never be enough. That we can never sit still. We feel compelled to move because if we don’t, we think that we’ll get run over. Then we feel reduced, insignificant.
We stitch ourselves up every morning, create routines to prop us up, hide behind our busyness. We can’t think on our interior life too much because the act of doing so will force us to become undone.
So we go searching for answers outside of ourselves. We go on spiritual retreats. We take expensive vacations. But we still come home to our old selves.
But where else can we go? What else can we do?
For starters, we shouldn’t seek to self-medicate with things that pollute our bodies, dishonor our spirit, and numb our minds. Secondly, we should not lose ourselves to work in order to shut off the questions that need asking. As Rilke sagely advised, live the questions.
The answers lie in the questions themselves. You only need to ask the right ones.
And while you are learning to form those very questions, I offer up these four suggestions.
1. Allow yourself to feel uneasy.
For something that is worth figuring out, there is no simple, prescriptive method for arriving at the answers. Yet, we demand this. Instant fixes that will take away our discomfort and pain.
Don’t settle for Band-Aid solutions. Have confidence in your track record. If you have managed this far to stand on your own two feet, then know that the uneasiness is temporary, much like your circumstances. Remind yourself that you are an amazing human being worthy of your journey.
2. Believe in something larger than yourself.
It doesn’t have to be a particular faith or religion. The “something larger” is anything that expands you and gives you hope when things are at their bleakest. On days when you find absolutely no reason to get out of bed, let this one thing guide you.
For me, it’s the vision of the life I want, the lives I want to touch, the people I want to love. For you, it may be appreciating nature, protecting wildlife, or completing that manuscript.
3. Peel off complexity until you find the core.
It helps to think of yourself as an onion. Keep peeling until you get at the core. This may mean ridding yourself of material things or the beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve you.
4. Create a safe space.
You need a place that is all your own and signifies simplicity. Go to it. Find healing there. And as the poet Rilke wisely observed, “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Photo by Gabriel Rocha