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.
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.
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.
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.
Curiosity. Open-mindedness. Essential.
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I just reread this after a trip to NYC where I encountered one of those people, a woman about my older age, with weathered skin eating from a trash can. Dozens of people passed as I stood and watched, feeling worse by the minute and not knowing how I could help. The situation appeared hopeless. Trash employees and police in this public space seemed oblivious. My heart screamed out that she deserved food, clothing, a bed, a shower. Someone to care for her. I dreamed about her that night, waking up feeling ashamed and helpless. The best that I felt I could do immediately the next day was to connect with another homeless woman, recognize her warmly as a fellow human being, and offer a lunch, one she accepted with a spontaneous smile. I left NYC and went back to Chicago where I use to live. The first person I encountered by my former downtown high rise was a homeless woman I knew the years I lived there who was still on the streets. I marveled at how she’d survived. I sit now back home in a quiet grassy pretty place in the middle of American and ponder what can I do to make this world a better place for the “least of these.” It’d be easy here to conveniently forget those challenges that I rarely confront in this setting. Rereading your essay prompted me to ask more questions about what I can and should do to address those unfair inequalities. Thank you.
And thank you for doing this and having the feeling, thoughts, and questions that provoked your act of simple decency toward this homeless woman. We need most everyone (beginning with ourselves) to approach the world with such questions leading to those that provoked action: I must look, what/who do I see? What must I do?
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Dr. Stein, thanks for this very thought-provoking post that’s most relevant for the times we now live in. Facing the grim reality of our lives can be quite daunting and even debilitating. Best to find some easy escape or distraction.
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Yes, Rosaliene. The “endurable” route often leads to escape or distraction. No wonder we rely on others to do the heavy lifting, and later blame them. Some require blame, all of us must therefore take on more of the job.
I love the 2nd picture: “Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Waiting.”
Another very thoughtful blog entry, Dr. Stein!
I don’t like mind control. I think I get triggered by that. I like the freedom to question things around me.
I suppose that when I ask deep inside, parts of myself felt like they couldn’t express feelings, emotions, thoughts, questions – nothing. They felt trapped. They felt that their opinions didn’t matter to their parents. They felt that the world didn’t care about them either. They felt like slaves to what everyone else needed or wanted from them. They craved love, affection, and freedom. But after a while, the cravings for those things stopped, and they went numb. The learned to give one another that love inside. They must have learned that from watching television, as they had no real-world models, save maybe a few kind people in school.
I kind of floated throughout my life. I was aware of my surroundings, and then I questioned whether I was real in surroundings that seemed surreal. Nothing seemed concrete. Things were constantly changing. I struggled to feel alive and real. I felt like I was half-awake most of my life.
But in therapy, the cravings for love came back. I think transference happened (again). It made me feel alive, but it was also painful. I learned to question the therapist while fearing her potentially leaving me and then terminating our relationship. She never left, and I was able to express my fears. Even the parts of myself were able to express their emotions, their thoughts, their pains, their fears, and their own memories – sometimes while I was aware, sometimes while I was dissociated. Our therapist accepted all of us, and she never left. So we learned to trust her, and we learned to sit with the feelings of longing and emotional pain – a void that questions everything about our life – past, present, and future. We never had a therapist like that before. We even told her some dark secrets, and she still accepted us.
But then we wondered why our own parents weren’t able to offer us the same kind of unconditional caring that we sense from our therapist. I suppose that we are learning how to be more present, less dissociative and “switchy.” We are learning to be more whole, insofar that co-consciousness is the present goal of treatment. We are learning to be free with our questions of everything, and we get validated for asking those questions. Sometimes we make statements about how terrifying the world is. We learn to correct our distortions though. But we are still free to ask questions and explore things.
I never felt so much freedom before now, even though I still feel trapped in this pandemic.
Restorative justice comes to mind when I think about opposing views and the harms that I have felt from many opposing views. It’s hard to relate to someone who hates you for whatever reason, especially when you’re a minority. It’s hard to deal with trauma triggers all the time, too.
I don’t know if I’m thinking correctly about the world or not.
Thoughts about spiritual abuse and other icky stuff from childhood come up, and I know the other parts of myself influence my thoughts. It’s hard to question things because then it feels too real. I’m still trying to distance myself from those internal voices and their memories. I’m still trying to not question, even though parts of me wants to question. If that makes any sense.
Yes to the Ecuadorian painter, who is new to me. If, however, you search his other work, many tend toward the dystopian. Others might say “reality.”
The world is challenging. Your world is more complicated than most. Yet, everything does change, sometimes sooner and sometimes later. Life is far more challenging than most want to face. The work you are doing in treatment sounds excellent and your system displays courage both in participating in it and allowing it, as the alters are able. I am proud of you.
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Thank you, Dr. S! 🙂 My therapist is really one of the best. She allowed me, the host person, to express negative emotions and reassured me that it will not hurt our therapeutic relationship. So I was able to say I felt hurt and angry and resentment and jealous (currently over things like being able to go out when I am scared to leave my apartment still but desperately miss people), and my alters allowed me to feel those things, even though I started feeling like I could not handle it because I felt betrayed by my alters not sharing in the pain with me. It was weird how I felt that today. I think this is the first time I was free too fully feel while getting reassurances for my fears of the therapist leaving (she is not leaving). I think I feel better, but I am still feeling a bunch of pain from past traumas at the same time.
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Wow, loved this! A very valuable post indeed. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts on some of your previous posts that I could have written now, so no need to repeat them here.
People spend way too much time just eating up everything they hear authority figures or those in power. I actually dislike the word “authority”. There’s no such thing as an authority in my opinion. No one can possibly know everything there is to know about something. There’s always more. More questions. More answers. Even more questions. No one knows what’s best for everyone. There are only guesses. We each need to explore and discover what WE believe (and be open to alternative viewpoints), and how best to live our lives.
Those deeper questions you mentioned, things such as seeing a homeless person, and instead of making a snap judgment, asking “why?”, is one of the great gifts we have as humans… The ability to go deeper. To wonder. To experience things on different levels. This all made sense in my mind, but not sure whether I accurately conveyed it here.
We see it in young children. They will ask “why is that man living on the street?”. The “why” phase that children go through, shouldn’t be a phase. Parents subtly and sometimes overtly discourage this curiosity.
Due to my sensory processing differences and trauma background, I notice and see more than the average person. But I’m also a questioner. A dreamer. I question too much (in the opinion of some of the people in my life), and I’ll admit that it can be exhausting at times. But it’s also one of the things that have helped keep me alive.
This world (and humanity) is complex, confusing, and sometimes downright infuriating. We’ll never have definitive answers to most things, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the questions, exploring, and discovering.
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Glad you liked it, Rayne. I think every authority has limitations and sometimes they are disqualifying. As I wrote, we are interconnected and cannot learn everything on our own, so we are inevitably dependent on some “experts.” Part of our challenge it to distinguish between those who deserve the authority they accept and some who ought not to be trusted. For the record, I’ve been fooled more than once and have also found the best-intentioned and most learned people do not always achieve the perfection we wish they could. I’m including the entire field of medicine/health care here, a group in which I have been a member.
I’d add that when you say “what we believe,” we need to determine (if we can) what the “belief” is based on. That is a problem for us as individuals, to take responsibility for the choices of politicians, friends, bosses, and medical experts we make.
Whether the others are “correct” about whether you question too much will demand consideration of the motives and short-comings in those who make such suggestions or judgments. Thanks for you engaging comment, Rayne.