Living the Questions

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


I must love the questions


as Rilke said

like locked rooms

full of treasure

to which my blind

and groping key

does not yet fit.

And await the answers

as unsealed letters

mailed with dubious intent

and written in a very foreign 


And in the hourly making

of myself

no thought of Time

to force, to squeeze

the space

I grow into.

–Alice Walker, 1972


What does it mean to live the questions?

Not just ask them, or read about them, but to actually live them while you try to find an answer?

And perhaps the answer never comes. Or perhaps the answer changes depending on the day, or the season.

Life, after all, is one grand set of questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I going to do with this life?

I am a person who faces these questions. That does not set people at ease. But I know no other way to be. I can only be myself. I can only live the way I am wired.

So many decisions we make, I think, are reactions to something that came before. We behave in ways we’re supposed to, in the manner of our predecessors. Or we grow up seeing something or someone we like, and we say, I will do that, too. Or we experience something awful, and we say, Never. I will live contrary to that. And then we experience more, or a mood hits us, and if we’re brave enough, we open up and change.

I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I did not care much about school, or going to college. I just wanted to get out of south Jersey. I just wanted to be independent. I just wanted to be in love.

But I loved to read. I loved to escape. And so I settled on the idea I would be a teacher, so I could talk about books with other people. And, at the end of college, I settled on the idea that I’d get married to my best friend. And I’d have kids, because I always wanted to be a mom. And that life worked for a time. The house in the suburbs with the backyard. Buying applesauce at the grocery store. Walks with a stroller around the neighborhood.

Then that life ended, like an earthquake. And a new life awaited.

A single woman, her own place. Kids half the time, days of independence. A big, clean office and a cubicle, a decent salary, great health benefits. Lunch breaks with coworkers, or a picnic at the nearby college campus.

Then that had to end, too.

At a certain point, when you’ve tried to follow the rules for a while, and things are just not working out the way you thought they would, the only sane thing to do is throw up your hands and accept your life as it is, not as you thought it would be. That’s when you take a deep dive into living the questions.

Who am I? What do I want? What am I going to do with my life? What matters?

I think, when a person is also a mother, we have a lot less sympathy that she may face such concerns.

On the one hand, we revere mothers as our first and foremost experience of unconditional love. We don’t know what we would do without them.

Yet we also seem to think mothers are Gods. Gods who endlessly give and sacrifice and forgive, and yet whose own yearnings don’t get the weight and respect they deserve. We think a mother’s job is to give up everything to raise us, to care for us, and to show us the way. But we feel entitled to question her choices, or to blame her for our pain, or for the pain of life. We want her to fix everything, and yet we’re quick to discount her. We often don’t acknowledge she is also human, and she may also have work to do in this world that goes beyond us.

When mothers give up everything, and sacrifice their own souls, to care for their children, they teach those children that that is what mothers do. And then the cycle continues. Sons begin to expect as much from their future wives or partners, and daughters feel compelled to follow in their mother’s footsteps.

Does unconditional love also have to mean unconditional sacrifice?

The other problem we face in this world of damaging organized religion is that there are few, if any, mothers we can look to for guidance on the spiritual path. Women who have married and have nursed children and have worked in jobs trying to raise them. Women who have given birth. Women who spend afternoons and evenings driving their kids to soccer practice and guitar lessons, while still trying to fit in time to meditate or reflect or read or pray. Those women, we think, don’t know, or can’t experience, or shouldn’t pursue, enlightenment. It is men who are closer to getting there, because men know the universal human experience. (Waa?) Or it is the people who remove themselves—the cloistered, the cloaked—-who know something better about how to live in faith.

We seem to have reverence for a father, who is entitled to pursue his own goals or calls to service. We admire men who go off to war, because we believe he is fighting for something bigger. We respect a father who answers a call to  ministry, and takes his family where a church wants him to go.

Well, all of this feels a little frustrating to me, and I’ve been spending time asking God why this must be so.

For instance:

Jesus, are my sexual organs really so bad? Can I be a faithful person and also have desires? 

Lord, Why don’t you broach the topic of sex with your apostles? 

Jesus, can women be church leaders? Can we show our hair? Are our bodies okay? Does a devout woman really have to dress in a robe and cover her head and keep her gaze to the floor to honor you?

Jesus, will a single mother who talks about the connection of Christianity and sexuality be crucified?

Jesus, you were a man, and we don’t know whether you were married or experienced physical intimacy. All of the New Testament is written by men, in fact, except for the hidden gem, the Gospel of Mary. Who do I look to as a model of how to be a good mother? 

Jesus, as a man who loves women wholeheartedly, tell me: How much should a woman have to compromise in order to make it in this world? Is it possible that there may be a new path, a new order? 

These are my questions. I am living them. I am trying them out.

I don’t know how it will go.


“sculpture” by Lauren Siewertsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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