We spend so much of our lives seeking answers to others’ questions and to the Big Questions: Who are we? Why do we exist? Why do we die? What happens afterward? How should we live? How can we be happy? How can we give back? What does it all mean?
It’s important that we give these questions their due, that we try to answer them for ourselves. But we must also strike out on our own. In contemplation of the grail quest, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path; each human being is a unique phenomenon.”
We forge our own paths only once we begin to generate new questions. Our own questions. These questions will help us to define what matters to each one of us in particular and where we’re headed. They’ll evoke the shapes of our lives in the way that groups of stars suggest constellations. Answers put us in place, but questions point the way forward. Every journey begins with questions.
The right question, posed at the right time, resembles a grappling hook well thrown and well landed, a path by which we can move forward and upward without needing wings. Perhaps angels are people who fly and people are angels who climb.
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestles an angel. This story has inspired visual art, music, novels, theater, and film. It’s a story told and retold, seen once and seen again, each time from a new angle in time and space. A clock itself becomes a metaphor for all the different views that life affords: we walk the numbered outer rim, looking inwards, glimpsing another facet of the center with each step as we cycle round.
Perhaps angels, if they exist, have the ability to see all with one long glance, but we mere mortals must fall back on our own ability to see anew. If we hope to understand anything or anyone, we can only look and look again.
And the best way to look again must be to ask questions, whether silently or out loud. It’s a craft and an art — or, at least, that’s what journalists and researchers come to understand. Now we have citizen journalists, but it would benefit us all to become citizen journalists in our own lives.
Consider this: it’s the questions we don’t ask, the questions we’re afraid to ask, the questions we’re forced to ask that change our lives. Every question forms a doorway from ignorance and innocence onto knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or so the maxim goes — when we look once, we can only see so much.
Have we not all had that experience of people who look at us, just once, and then turn away? What have they seen? Themselves more than us. We know better when we do better, when we resolve to ask better questions, each one oriented by the one preceding it. There’s always more to see.
Sierra Prasada is a Washington, D.C.-based author, journalist, editor, and teacher. She is co-author, with her father Dan Millman, of The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication. Visit Inspire Me Today for more thought-provoking essays on starting your own personal journey.