Ages ago, when I was in college, I visited a friend’s house in Chicago for a weekend. I spent a lot of time chatting with her mom in her kitchen, and when it was time for us to go back to school, her mom slipped me an envelope and whispered something about how she cared.
I didn’t open it until I returned to the privacy of my dorm room. But when I did, I clearly remember being confused by its content. It was a piece of paper with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, one day in the distant future, you will gradually, without realizing it, live your way into the answer.”
At 20, it made no sense to me. I was of an age where I needed every request I had to explain. And yet, even though I was aware that I couldn’t really appreciate it, it still felt like there was something valuable on that piece of paper.
I’ve pondered this quote off and on for most of my adult life, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve truly realized the power of certain types of questions in and of themselves, even when we can’t find answers quickly. We can learn a lot about ourselves, about each other, and how we inhabit the world by considering not only the types of questions we ask and the questions we allow ourselves to be asked, but also the different places from whom and to whom our questions come and whom they address.
The types of questions we are encouraged or inspired to ask depend on who or what we surround ourselves with, from books, movies and television shows to the news sources we use, the organizations we belong to, the families we belong to we grew up with or the friends we meet up with. I value art as a source from which questions arise. Sitting quietly with a poem, standing in front of a picture or an installation, listening to a piece of music means opening yourself up to questioning the work and being questioned by it.
I love text-based public art Installation “We Belong Here” by the Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, whose rich artistic practice considers the intersections of art, culture, politics and science. Deceptively simple, the three words of the track’s title are written in large cursive letters and illuminated in neon pink. Completed in 2021 and commissioned by the Social Justice Fund, it is one of two tracks collectively called “Belong/Brooklyn”. It is perched high atop the multi-line subway entrance that transitions into the plaza entrance of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
The center is in the heart of a district rife with complex issues surrounding gentrification and resident displacement. The square itself has a history as a site for social justice protests and other public gatherings. Thousands of people pass through the facility at this location every day.
I don’t live in Brooklyn, but seeing this work there made me think about the notions of belonging and non-belonging. Who determines who claims belonging, and how do politics, economics, and socioeconomics intersect with local community history? Strachan’s art reminds me of the value and need to ask questions publicly in a way that invites people to understand that we are all individually involved in both the question and the answer.
“‘What is truth?’ Christ and Pilate”, an 1890 painting by the Russian realist Nikolai Ge, is a powerful illustration of not only the types of questions we ask, but the way we ask them. In this haunting image, a scruffy-looking figure of Christ stands almost passively in the shadows against a wall. His hands are behind his back, presumably tied.
The scene shows a moment during Jesus’ arrest when he is being interrogated by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate stands illuminated in the foreground of the canvas: he is the center of the picture, the one of recognized power, and he has stretched out a hand to Christ, asking him to justify his claims. His attitude is firm and direct, but it is not an attitude that seems open to considering the validity of anything that might come out of the mouth of Christ. The question he asks, “What is truth?” is rhetorical, almost mocking. It suggests that Pilate already has an acceptable framework for the question he is posing. He’s not really looking for new answers.
Looking at this work, I can’t help but think that it is often those with power who are given the right to ask certain questions. Our place socially, economically, and politically can determine not only the questions we ask one another, but how we ask them and our susceptibility to any type of response.
It is fascinating to know that in the broader exchange of this encounter between Pilate and Christ, drawn from the Gospel of John, all of Pilate’s questions seem to serve the purpose of either asserting his own power or escaping any personal responsibility for himself maneuver what will happen to Christ. And yet he is still uneasy about the way Pilate’s questions are being answered. He washes his hands of what the people are choosing to do with Jesus, but is troubled by the encounter. The most generative questions, whether we ask them or answer them, are the ones that invite us to listen and listen to ourselves and each other more deeply.
In “Dreams Take Time” a painting by the 25-year-old Ghanaian artist Joshua Oheneba-Takyi, a young woman in a red dress sits between three empty chairs. She’s settled comfortably in this small room, two chairs facing her, one facing away, and her discarded shoes resting on the hem of her dress. She seems thoughtful, almost discouraged.
The empty chairs around this young woman made me think of the people or communities to which we are addressing our questions. It’s not always about looking for answers right away. Sometimes, as Rilke suggests, it’s about learning to sit on the questions until we find our way forward. But I believe that even this process can be deepened and made insightful by those we invite to sit with us, who can challenge our process with their own questions to us.
I have a specific friend that I can picture in one of those places. When I tell her my thoughts and feelings about a certain subject, she has an extraordinary way of asking questions that makes me look at it from a perspective I hadn’t thought of. She doesn’t give me answers, but helps me to find a way to them. Asking good questions is an art form. But it’s one we can all learn, because it starts with deep listening and not being afraid of not having answers for others.
The chairs could also represent the issues that we struggle to acknowledge or acknowledge. Questions like: What in my life am I willing to fight for? Where do I need to show more courage, more love, more generosity? What do I feel compelled to do and what keeps me from acting on it? Questions that, in the way we deal with them, can have a profound impact on how we live our lives.
In the poem “Sometimes” by Anglo-Irish poet David Whyte there are lines that speak of “questions that can change or destroy a life, questions that have waited patiently for you, questions that have no right to go away”. . . Perhaps the most transformative questions relate to Divination, and they begin with us first telling ourselves the truth about ourselves.
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https://www.ft.com/content/7756e1a1-4dbf-4d8b-96e7-0dbc9f6fe32c The power of a good question