When I think back to my Chicago Public School education, only two answers existed for the many questions presented to us. One was right, the other wrong.
No, I suppose it wasn’t quite so simple. I had to find the one right answer. All the rest were wrong.
It is evident today that even my five-year-old grandson has opinions, and an astonishing number of us choose to believe a select group of those who deliver opinions. Unlike my elementary school, our country doesn’t agree on the question of what’s right and what’s wrong.
What shall we do with this condition of our equally human lives together? We are assailed by so many who offer a certainty not shared by other voices. They and we live in unshared tents of true belief.
First, dear reader, I don’t want you to accept automatically what I’m about to offer you. I don’t want you to receive my ideas without asking yourself about them. If you don’t step back and consider whether I’m wrong, I shall become another of those supposed authorities who might mislead you by accident or the intention to deceive.
Let’s get back to what I learned early in life.
My sliver of religious education encountered authorities similar to the secular ones employed by the city, in this case having to do with alleged truth about our obligations to a creator and fellow mortals.
Depending on one’s religion, one received God’s all-knowing words, some etched into long-unavailable stone tablets. So the believers believed.
Friends told me about the Catholic churches of the time. Bible reading was discouraged. The priest would inform you of all you needed. Accepting his pronouncements was expected.
The various authorities delivered top-down stature and insistence. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t dare ask who or what is in the boat or where the vessel is docked.
You could ask questions in these centers of learning, but I didn’t ask many early on—most who did attempted to understand what the teacher or the text said, not challenge the instructor.
Parents also authored a version of the law: the rules of the home and how to behave outside. Again, follow the drill. If you don’t, no thrill.
If the city elders put a sign on the Chicago block containing Jamieson School — the gigantic mortar and brick edifice I attended through the eighth grade, it would have read:
WANT TO FAIL? ASK QUESTIONS!
Somehow I got a doctorate. I made a jump of several years here. Hope you are still with me.
What was going on then? What is going on today?
The average American has not been encouraged to ask queries of himself. Not well-considered, thoughtful ones, at least. For example, when the teacher told us about slavery, the telling including a few uncomplicated explanations of how and why.
Almost no instructor asked students, what else? Might there have been other causes, more or fewer?
We could have been asked, “What do you think was going on in the minds of the slaveholders? What motivated them? If you were a slave, how would you have felt?”
Many of the slaveholders claimed adherence to high-minded religious principles. How did these “masters” combine the vision of a loving God with their treatment of men they considered property?
What does this tell us about the ability of some folks to hold contradictions in their minds? Do you think the plantation owners resolved those contradictory beliefs and actions? How? Do such contradictions present themselves in today’s world? Do they live inside you?
What would you have done if you were the son of a mom and dad who kept slaves? Can you be sure without having lived in that moment, in an identical place and time?
Well, you can imagine. If I taught such a class to young people in certain places today, I’d be terminated along with this agenda.
To my benefit, I was a curious kid, one who led a one-person in-home questioning of my family’s life on Talman Avenue.
Whatever the cause, most of us should harbor lots of questions about the world we live in. An endless number. In particular, those without easy answers
Even before we start, however, we must begin by observing more of the world. Socrates, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers said a typical person sleepwalks his way through life. We see without awareness. We hear without listening.
We peek at life through a tiny lens — as if through the small end of a funnel. We walk down the street peering into phones, examining texts, tweets, headlines, and emails fed to us by those opinionated others I mentioned before. Taking selfies along the way, as well. Everything gets blurry.
Meanwhile, if you challenge yourself to absorb everything else, you might see without a funnel. Notice the road. Why is it closed off? Perhaps you would wonder who decided this? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? How are the asphalt and labor paid for?
You’d see homeless people instead of walking past them as we tend to do with discarded furniture, recognizing the humanity in them described in Sabbath sermons. Do these creatures cause problems? How? What do they need? What is your responsibility? Where do they sleep?
Recognize the weathered skin of those too long in the sun. Were they born to other homeless people? Did medical bills lead to the loss of proper shelter? Was prescribed medication a stepping stone to addiction?
You’d see trees and insects. In some locals, few flies, bees, and butterflies live. Was it always this way? What explains their reduction in numbers? What happens when these beings are in short supply? Are there human consequences due to their diminished number?
Do you know population growth is slowing in many countries? This started before the pandemic. Is it a good thing or not? Why are people having fewer babies? How significant a factor is a living wage to the decision to have a child?
If you take another intellectual step, immigration policy enters your conversation with yourself. Pro or con? More newcomers would increase the number of inhabitants and produce more children. Helpful for business or not?
I hope you recognize how many issues like this are interconnected with other observations you might make as you widen your eyes to consume what is in front and around you. Prepare yourself for one question leading to another. The experience can be both unsettling and exciting.
We are interlinked to things, bugs, bridges, people, the folks harvesting our crops, the guy who collects our garbage, the environment, the people who build businesses, the men and women working three jobs of necessity, and the police.
We are attached to entities like us who toil in never heard of villages or cities, absent from dusty maps. Some are decent, some indecent, some would give you the shoes they use to walk, and others would steal yours and laugh about it.
Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus all observed their neighbors’ failure to open themselves to the world, wonder about it, and raise internal inquiries instead of accepting the opinions of those thought to be more learned or wise. They believed this the natural state of humanity.
Why? Why do we hear but don’t listen? Why do we step forward through the day, the places, and the living things without “seeing” them?
Why don’t we reflect upon what we perceive of this magnificent, baffling, racing life and begin more questioning rather than reflexively buying into so-called authorities, assuming they are right?
The philosophers I mentioned suggested explanations like this one:
We want simple answers. Quick conclusions making us feel better are preferred, whether they help us feel secure, confident, and adequate or project blame for hard times on others instead of ourselves.
If a person admits he doesn’t understand something by asking a question, he risks self-doubt. If this man is unsure around associates, he may appear foolish.
Uncertainty experienced within our complicated lives provokes anxiety for many. Confused, shaky members of the group can be cast out or lose status. Rejecting the accepted ideas of the tribe breaches the unstated rules of membership.
The world is a demanding, competitive place, where few own the luxury of time. It is one where fairness and prosperity are not guaranteed. Making a living, finding a mate, achieving a safe place to live, and raising decent and healthy children can’t be assumed.
Better, many believe, not to overthink what others don’t ask about, thus avoiding worry. Last, we cannot escape the grim reaper: death. We will die, as will everyone we know or will know, those dearest to us included—another troublesome topic to be set aside instinctively.
Few have the courage to look at the most pressing conditions of existence in the face, nor the person seen in their mirror. Thus, only the strongest can take on the surroundings in one swallow that includes everything — the beautiful and the awful together.
Small bites of the least unsettling bits of it come naturally to the human condition. No, don’t ask too many troublesome questions without comforting, fortifying answers. When in doubt, trust your friends and maybe the people they trust. If you take a widemouthed gulp of the whole world, you might drown.
Ah, but the same philosophers also believed there is an upside here. If you are brave enough to perceive everything as it is and engage in questions on a large scale, you will become a more excellent person. You may then alter your life’s path and the history of those around you.
This kind of courage, curiosity, and wonder offers engagement with whatever exists ahead. The well-being you want for those you love and the world’s future requires people such as you shall thereby become.
The possibility of discovering the best possible version of yourself remains down this road. I hope you seek it.
The first image is the Yukon River, Dalton Highway, Alaska by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission. Next comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Waiting. Finally, a Buddhist Lama, 1913, sourced from History Daily.