Asking Good Questions
Asking Good Questions: September 15, 2017
Earlier tonight I completed the registration for Emma to play church league basketball. She’s four years old.
By contrast, it was a really big deal when my school started a Junior Junior Varsity basketball team for fifth grade girls. I’d been on a summer swim team, but learning to coordinate play as a unit was new and hard. After a frustrating afternoon practice, my brother, Harry, made the mistake of trying to be nice to me. He’d played church league ball for years, and he asked me what I didn’t understand. I completely blew up at him.
In my snarkiest singsongy elementary girl voice I said, “I can’t tell you what I don’t understand because I. Don’t. Understand. It.” I’m pretty sure I flounced off at that point, rolling my eyes and squandering the rare opportunity of an older brother paying attention to me.
I’ve regretted at that decision—and bad logic—for many years. (Thanks anyway for offering, Harry.)
And though it is bad logic, or small imagination, not to be able to articulate what’s stumping me, I also still resonate with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Of being tested on rules I don’t know. Of not knowing what I don’t know.
One night in April when Dad was in the hospital, he asked the nurse for a Tums. It set off this whole chain of events because Tums wasn’t on his list of approved medicines. He got sick before they could approve the medication, and, naturally, he was upset about it.
The next morning he complained to the Infectious Disease nurse doing her rounds. She listened sympathetically and calmly said, “I see here on your chart that the doctor had approved some anti-nausea medicine, but it’s not Tums. If you’d told the nurse you were feeling nauseated, and asked for medicine to help the nausea, she would have brought you this, but since you asked for Tums specifically, she had to try to get that approved, and in the meantime, you got sick. I’m so sorry. Next time, tell the nurse what’s wrong, and ask for help.”
It’s important to ask the right questions. It’s important to know how to ask for help.
If you subscribe to this blog, you get an email at the end of each moth previewing the next blog. I tell you what I’m thinking about and ask for your opinions or comments. This time I asked what questions you’re asking. (And by the way, Ron fixed my car! Something about an air flow sensor.)
I was most intrigued with Alex’s response, which was, roughly, “Why do people accept so unquestioningly the way we live?” In our subsequent back-and-forth he convincingly correlated our way of life to war, climate change, income inequality, and addiction epidemics. All of these are things we could, successfully, globally, tackle. If we collectively questioned whether our current situation is sustainable—or if it is even how we want to live.
I was taken with this conversation because most folks, myself included, are asking more personal questions. Even if agreeing with all of the above, our questions are more along the lines of what I posed to him: “how can I be part of the effort to create more healthful, more resilient, more equitable ways of thinking and acting?”
I once asked my friend, Bishop William Skilton, how to remember the difference between his position as Suffragan Bishop and the position of Bishop Coadjutor. One is the title for someone who will become the next Bishop, the other is a set, administrative position. He smiled and said, “Remember it this way. In the morning when the Bishop walks into the office, the Suffragan Bishop says, ‘Good morning, Bishop. What can I do for you today?’ and the Bishop Coadjutor says, ‘Good morning, Bishop. How are you feeling today?’”
A good question also tells you a lot about the questioner.
That’s why it’s such a pleasure to listen to a good interviewer, like Krista Tippett or Terry Gross or Charlie Rose. They often ask a question that I didn’t know I wanted them to ask but which elicits the exact information I’d been wondering about. And—and this is important—they shut up and let the other person answer. And maybe wait a beat or two just to make sure the person really is finished.
Asking good questions can mean being brave enough to trust that there’s a good answer.
Many times I find myself praying or meditating on a question that I think is a good question, but that really turns out to be some version of, “how can I make this work?” In prayer that means my small self/ego is trying to play it safe, trying to sort-of appease God enough by showing that I get that this new opportunity/situation/problem could be a time for growth, but trying to game it by figuring out how to handle it without having to change too much. In other words, finessing instead of surrendering.
Growth means change. I have to trust that the growth is worth the surrender. And even though this has always proven true; it’s hard every single time.
When I asked Alex the “what’s my part?” question, he offered this wonderful, clear and oh-so-difficult answer: Persuade the people who will hear you.
Notice that it’s not the people who will listen to you—a lot of people will politely listen. But rather: speak clearly to your own sphere of influence-the people who will hear you. Be bold.
The help we receive is directly related to the help we request. Offer bold help. Request bold help.
This is how I’ve come to think of prayer. I’ve never felt comfortable asking for really specific things—or if I do pray for something specific, I always add the disclaimer “If it be Your will.” I believe in laying out to God all the specifics, all the particulars, all my feelings about something. But my prayer request is for God’s will to be done. Asking for guidance, not for a specific solution, and praying that I will see the help wherever and in whatever form it comes.
Asking bold questions. Being open to bold answers.
Here are the questions I just asked my children, as I do every night, before kissing them good night. “When did you notice God today? When were you kind? When did you notice someone else being kind?”
Maybe we disciples should each consider ourselves Suffragan Bishops, as it were, to our one high priest. Every morning asking the bold question, “What would you have me do today?”
Being willing to be bold helpers.
Being willing to receive bold help.