When our three children first learned to speak, our conversations with them usually began with their curiosities, fountains of questions bubbling from the moment they could string together a sentence: “Why is it raining? What was that noise? What is this? When will you be home? Why do I have to go to bed now? Who put grown-ups in charge?”
Be patient with everything that remains unsolved in your heartâ€¦ live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself living into the answer, some distant day.
~Rainer Maria Rilke
When our three children first learned to speak, our conversations with them usually began with their curiosities, fountains of questions bubbling from the moment they could string together a sentence: “Why is it raining? What was that noise? What is this? When will you be home? Why do I have to go to bed now? Who put grown-ups in charge?” Their questions asked for explanations and sought reassurances; they were at times silly, at other times challenging. They expressed wonder about the world and a great hunger to know and understand life. Their questions made me woefully aware of how much more I needed to learn and grateful for encyclopedias.
Children’s questions, the stories or answers they receive in response, and the questions they are asked imprint them with a frame of reference. I tried as a mother to ask my children questions that offered choices, inquired how they were feeling, acknowledged their struggles and joys, and expressed interest in what they thought or had learned: “How was your day? What story would you like to read? Where would you like to go on an adventure? What are you curious about? Why do you think that’s important?”
Questions shape us long before we find any answers. They are windows into how we see, what we want, and our open edges. The questions we ask (or avoid asking) come in many sizes and open or limit the worlds within which we live. In Elie Wiesel’s Night, a Holocaust memoir, Elie’s spiritual master suggests that a question possesses powers that do not lie in its answer. “Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him”, later adding “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.”
Questions set a direction. Every question leads somewhere; where depends on its often hidden assumptions. Our choice of questions is a moral act with impacts. “Why can’t you ever do anything right?” presumes and creates an identity of incompetence. “Who made such a stupid decision?” looks to assign blame. “How can we get even?” rallies support for retaliation. “Why bother to invest in a 'lost generation’?” reinforces despair about the future.
Conversely, questions can inspire, intrigue, delight, clarify, invite and build community. They can create pathways to positive experiences and affections, stimulate reflection on issues of importance, and help people notice what is of value. ”How did you learn to do such a good job?” honors an individual’s skill and generates useful information about creating a path to work for others. “How can we support and learn from your community?” assumes there is much to be learned and invites relationship and trust. “How can we get this done now and how can I help?” infers confidence in an idea and a readiness to act on it, building solidarity and momentum to move forward. A positive community connection is reinforced by asking “What makes you glad to live in this neighborhood?” instead of “What are the biggest problems here?” Shifting ownership of the future to citizens is activated by “What can you do to make a difference?”
How can we ask questions that offer a path into life’s mystery and wonder? What “right questions” might we ask to help regenerate public life?
What Are God’s Dreams?
In 1991, at a conference about “Faith, Imagination and Public Life” I was running, someone asked two especially provocative questions that changed the course of my life: “What are God’s dreams for Chicago? And what would it take to bring them to life?” The questions challenged all of us at that conference to think from the largest perspective possible about what was ultimately worthy of the commitment of our lives. A vision emerged for me in response to that question of the recycling symbol as an image of God’s economy. Four days later, I gave up a sixteen year corporate banking career to devote myself to helping create an economy in which nothing and no one is wasted. That process became known as Imagine Chicago. It has had my wholehearted attention ever since.
Renewing Public Life
Imagine Chicago’s design team worked many months on designing what we hoped were a few “right questions” for renewing public life in Chicago. What questions would get people thinking about the whole, and invite new ways of seeing and connecting to Chicago’s future as one that citizens had the choice to create? When we had completed a draft set of questions, a design team member mentioned that the interview protocol reminded him of “appreciative inquiry”, a growing body of research at Case Western Reserve University about inquiry methods that evoked stories, and encouraged groups of people to envision positive images of the future grounded in the best of the past. That research suggests that questions that search for what has life, meaning and energy (rather than what the problems are) have the greatest potential to produce deep and sustaining change and inspire collective action in human systems.
Which brings me back to wondering: What worlds are we creating with our questions? What questions are you asking now as the world struggles to find a new set of structures and directions? What hope is emerging for you in the current restructuring? What new insights and connections are emerging? What are your sources of courage and perspective? What questions would you most like to see people in your community thinking and talking about together? What “right questions” might open up new ways of seeing and acting that will inspire hope in the face of the current losses? What can we each do to mobilize collective action on behalf of democracy as a creative activity that requires everyone’s participation?