What would be your one question?

The world needs people. The world needs you.
by Dr. Jacob Needleman

“Here’s an anecdote that I think is suitable for introducing what I want to say to you as you graduate from high school today. At the one and only time in my life in which I had the opportunity to teach a course in philosophy at high school level, my first step was to ask the class (and I ask all of you, too): Suppose you were in front of someone whom you regarded as the wisest person in the world and, as though it were in a fairy tale, you could ask one question and one question only. What would it be?

I think it is enormously important to take this seriously—in front of a person of great wisdom, what would be your one question? If we take a moment or two to ponder that, you will find it is not so easy. The fact that it is not so easy is already a sign of something that is rather important.

At first these students, like most of us, found it very difficult. But then, after a couple of minutes of reflection, they wrote their questions on pieces of paper and handed them in. What came back was very striking. It was a small class of about twelve students. And the questions that were written, all of them, were the great questions of the heart the great questions that are asked from deep inside ourselves, from the part of ourselves where there is the source of inner freedom. These questions are the questions that come out of the essence of human nature, the real depths of human nature, the part of ourselves that modem science and technology have not really understood or honored yet, and which has been somewhat lost in our culture. Questions like: Who am I? Does God exist? Do we have a soul? Is it immortal? What is good? What is evil? Why do we suffer? What can we hope for? How should we live? These are the great unanswered questions, or unanswerable questions if you like, which define us as human beings. They come from that part of ourselves that is the beginning of freedom.

What I am trying to say today, what I want to propose to you today, is that this deep part of human nature, this deep part of ourselves, we might think of as the place where we find the answers to what our life is about. Surely in the long run that is probably and almost certainly true—that is where the answers will be found.

But I’m proposing to you today that you look not for answers but for questions. It’s the question that we need to find. It’s the place where the deep questioning arises—this tender, essential, human power to step back in oneself and step back from all of one’s urges, one’s anxieties, one’s cravings, one’s passing wishes, one’s fears, one’s maybe foolish hopes, one’s agitations, one’s chaos—to step back from that and not only to have a question but to be in question, to be a question. It is there that the freedom appears, and this freedom is intimately connected with this sense of the universe, of the greatness of human nature. The great self within, that you’ve probably heard a lot about, that all of the great ancient teachings speak about, the great truth within ourselves I am proposing to you, as a philosopher, begins in the form of a question, not of an answer. You will see that the mind is free only when it starts to question. We don’t suffer from our questions in life, we suffer from our answers, and that is what as philosophers we can bring to this whole life we live, and where we are asked to contribute something to the world.

Now these young people, the high school class; half of them wrote their questions in tiny little letters at the bottom of the page and at the margins of the page and they left the whole space of the page blank, and I couldn’t figure out why. Why were they writing these wonderful questions that were so much of the heart—questions like; What is the mind? What is it for? Why do we live? Why do we die?—in tiny little letters down at the bottom of the page or in the margins, as though I was looking at a blank page? I realized that, unlike the Waldorf School but very like what is going on in so much of our culture, they were afraid to ask these questions. They were afraid they would not be honored. It was as though there was a kind of metaphysical or philosophical repression in the whole culture, a repression of this impulse within the self, this impulse of deep inner wonder and questioning. Plato, as you al have probably heard, has called this Eros, which is a word that we have not understood fully. The deepest meaning of it for Plato was the impulse of love, of understanding, the wish to contact reality—the big reality—to participate in it, to serve it. Eros—this love of wisdom, this love of truth, this wish to know and to understand and to serve what is great. For Plato, and for many of the great spiritual teachers of the world, this is the essential defining quality that makes us fully human, much more essential to our humanness than all the other intellectual/biological elements which we tend to identify ourselves with. When that energy, that striving, is covered over or suppressed, it is a far greater danger to our lives, our own personal self and the life of our society and community than any other kind of repression. Repression of sexuality is very harmful, repression of many other things is very harmful, but nothing is more dangerous to human life than to suppress the essence of human nature, which is the desire to understand and serve something in ourselves that is bigger and higher and greater than ourselves. This appears in the form of a questioning—it first makes itself known in the form of a questioning.

Look up at the stars on a clear dark night away from the city, and the sense of wonder appears. This is a form of questioning, because in a state of wonder you are asking; Who am I in this great universe? What must I do? It’s not an anxiety; it’s a sense of a holding, almost a sacred sense of desire, wish, lack, and a quiet and deep and sacred sense of what my purpose may be, not so much to find the answers but to live the questions. There’s a great German poet— Rilke—and there’s a poem by Rilke which I would like to read to you because it expresses something of what I am trying to say. It has to do with the scale, the measure, of what we undertake in our lives, what our essential wish is. If we find our wish, if we find our real essential question, this gives us a meaning far greater than the answers, because the great question is a discovery of a deep, hidden part of ourselves.

I have given many classes in philosophy at the University, and of late most of my students, like most students everywhere now, are very angry, very troubled, with America. When they begin to go into the depths of the ideas of a great American philosopher like Emerson, it’s not that they change their political and social views, but their anger is no longer paramount. If you ask them what Emerson or the great philosophers have meant to them, they say these thinkers brought them hope. What is the hope that brings ideas that lead to the great questions of life? It is hope not because of the answers, not because of the contents of what is spoken. It’s a hope that appears because men and women have come in touch with the part of themselves that has been covered over throughout their lives. It’s not that one gives up any of one’s pleasures, or any of one’s interests, or any of one’s obligations in ordinary everyday life. It’s just that this part suddenly begins to come forward, and it’s that part which one intuitively feels will bring meaning to one’s life, because a human being lives and dies not by pleasure and pain or success or failure but by meaning. So the fundamental question is a question of what brings us meaning. This is a poem by Rilke that may throw a certain light on this. It is called “The Man Watching.”

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after

so many dull days, on my worried window panes

that a storm is coming,

and I hear the far-off fields say things

I can’t bear without a friend,

I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on

across the woods and across time,

and the world looks as if it had no age:

the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,

is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great!

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need names.

(And here’s the point of his poem:)

When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler’s sinews

grew long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel

(who often simply declined the fight)

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

It is the question that we’re searching for—that wants to come forward, that we need to wrestle with, this Angel within—that we need to be humbled by, because it is in the defeat of the ordinary personality, its dominance, that the question opens up and one becomes receptive. So all I wish to say today is: search for your question—the question, if it’s lived, of who you are, what we must do, how I must relate to what is greater than myself in order to serve others in universe.  When that question is felt with your mind and your heart and your body, the question becomes the answer.  What the world needs, the hope, comes not from new ideas or new techniques or new ideologies or new programs or new politics or new books.  The hope comes from people.  New people.  All I ask is that you consider what you wish to become as fully human people, for that’s where the hope of the world is.Thank you.“

– Dr. Jacob Needleman

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