A friend drew the Higher Thought question, “Would you like to know what happens after death or do you prefer not knowing? Or do you think you already know?”
She responded immediately, “I’d like to know.”
“Really?” I replied. “But doesn’t not knowing what happens after death give life its edge, its urgency? Doesn’t that ultimate mystery give an enlivening bite to our existence?”
She shrugged. “Not for me.”
I nearly quoted Emily Dickinson then:
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –Emily Dickinson, “This World is not Conclusion”
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -“
But I didn’t think it would change my friend’s mind. After all, despite the volcanic energy in Dickinson’s words, it’s hard to argue logically for the merits of the Tooth that nibbles at the soul.
A few days later, my friend and I were talking and I summarized a powerful short story I’d once read:
A comfortable modern-day woman has episodic visions of a woman from an earlier century. This woman from the past—whose life the modern-day protagonist is given glimpses into—led a tragic and painful life. But in the climactic scene of the story, the protagonist sees this woman of the past as an infant who cannot breathe properly. Overcome by some atavistic maternal instinct, the protagonist somehow physically reaches into this past scenario, presses her fingers gently to the baby’s breastbone and breathes into her mouth, enabling her to live. When the protagonist returns to the present time, she is overcome with sorrow. What on earth did she save that baby for? A life of anguish? Her husband comforts her, pointing out that she cannot possibly judge the value of anyone’s life, nor is it given to her to know why she became involved as she did with the unfolding of this past woman’s destiny.
For me, this story points poignantly at the infinity of all we do not and cannot know. It also poses, in a uniquely provocative way, the question of whether suffering has meaning … whatever “meaning” means!
My friend was unimpressed. “I like answers,” she said. “I prefer answers to questions.”
My friend certainly knows herself. She is also strong and kind, ethical and smart. I always see her making clearheaded decisions. She’s a powerful person too; she persuaded me to go vegan (well, almost vegan).
But unlike her, I’m a question person. I like to live inside questions; they’re very roomy. And it seems the older I get, the fewer conclusions I have complete faith in. One advantage to this is that it makes me feel like a child, which is something of a consolation at my age.
But here’s one thing I am convinced of. I believe that just as there are introverts and extroverts, fire signs and water signs, so too there are question people and answer people, and we critically need both.
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