The Unanswerable Question

Deception Pass

Toni Morrison once said that she often begins her novels with a question. Something difficult to answer.

Maybe even impossible.

And in a society that values the final product above process, ends before means, facts over wisdom–this seems revolutionary to me.

During my college years, I had a mentor who believed we all had “seminal questions.” And that we built lives, knowingly or not, around these questions.

Of course, she was an academic in the humanities, and this was true of her colleagues. Her world.

But I wonder what would happen if we all focused a little more on asking the right questions–and less on giving the right answers. Less ego, more curiosity.

“A ship in harbor is safe,” someone once said. “But that is not what ships are built for.”*

So many of us prefer the safe harbor. The fields where we are most knowledgeable, or the fields that we feel promise us the surest guarantee of right answers.

But the very fact of early human migrations express an inherited need to explore. To discover. To question and to wonder. To find better ways to survive. And working with adult students at a local community college, I’ve seen there comes a time in each life when facts and right answers do not suffice. Our minds evolved for more than bookkeeping.

There is the quest.

And so we must pose those hard questions. The ones to which there may be no answers, and for which none have yet been found.

What is the right way to treat strangers, when so many will either take advantage of your trust or be hurt by your coldness?

Should we fight against our inherent temperaments, such as shyness, or work with them–or do both? How can we know what is best?

When do we let someone we love fall and get hurt–but learn? And when do we catch them?

These are the questions I encourage my students to ask and to struggle toward answering. Because only the complexities suggested by questions for which there are no absolute, final answers are enough to sustain a novel. A work of art. A life.

*This quote has been attributed to Admiral Grace Hopper, John Augustus Shedd, and William Shedd, among others.

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