The Patience of Questions

Photo: New Yorker

Photo: New Yorker

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

An orange entrepreneur is telling a story to a red-suited politician.

“…Somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that exactly what this’s done.”

I press pause. The students of my public speaking class have found the elusive equilibrium between fascination and boredom in the last period before they depart for their senior trip to Rome. They’ve given their speeches, turned in their homework. Now we’re watching the U.S. presidential debate they’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t experienced themselves.

“What… what is he even saying?” one girl asks, baffled. “The moderator asked why he had better judgement than Hillary. So… what?”

“I just heard ‘Sean Hannity’ about seven times,” I admit. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

The nuances of this debate are lost on my students, for the most part. They don’t know the jargon, the background, the political gossip that decorates both news and entertainment these days. They don’t all hold American passports, though even that isn’t a guarantee of political engagement. Still, they suspect it’s important, so they watch and comment.

The last few months in American politics have prompted several articles from prominent writers and news anchors, who  feel for the first time ambivalent about their roles of “unbiased journalists” in the face of what they see as huge threats to our nation. They want to pick a side, to tell one story, and often they do.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, with a room full of students with only half-formed opinions, I suddenly understand the feeling. I don’t have the ear of the nation—I’m no New York Times columnist or CNN reporter, trying to justify my bias—but I do have a bit of influence. Over just this small world, just a few minds. What will we do with it, ask teachers everywhere, cracking our knuckles like super-villians.

As we watch this debate, I have to bite my tongue often to keep from telling them not just what I think, but what to think. It’s not a new feeling, the temptation to just tell people what to do, and pray that they listen. Today, with these eager high school seniors, I realize that the most important shortcuts I’d take as their teacher and mentor aren’t even political ones. There are mistakes that I’d like to warn them off of, life paths down which I’d point them decisively. They have questions–about God, about life, about love–that I could start to answer. I could just tell them, and if they’d just listen life would be so much easier.

"Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Caravaggio

“Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” Caravaggio

Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit on a panel of other community members at the local church, for a forum for youth called “Conversations.” The topic of the day was curiosity, both the attention and the boldness it takes to ask questions. They looked at Carravagio’s painting of Thomas, examining the way Jesus not only allows but welcomes Thomas’s questioning, pulling his hand to the wound to show him. We discussed the role of questions in forming our own faiths at various seasons in our lives, assuring students that we’d asked questions of our own, and continue to do so now.

“Having the answers” (or even just thinking I do) is deceptive kind of power, really not much power at all. The notes that my students write down and memorize produce only impermanent results, not lasting life influence. They repeat that “Jesus” is the answer, but can’t show their work. The research they do on their own, painstaking and circuitous, full of questions and dead ends, is where the real learning happens. The questions take so much longer, but the earned answers are the ones that last. I can only walk with Christ when he is a person I know, not a word to fill in the blanks, a prescribed selection on a ballot of life choices. And knowing takes time.

When my class’s debate commentary dwindles, I unfreeze Mr. Trump and let him finish complaining about Secretary Clinton’s temperament. We giggle at her now-famous shoulder shimmy of a response, and watch a few more exchanges before moderator Lester Holt redirects them with a calm, “It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time for us to move on, too,” I say, closing my laptop. “But quickly–politics aside–what would you say to Donald Trump if you were his public speaking teacher?”

“Make an outline!” my students cry. “Seriously. An outline, and stick to it. He would be so much clearer, and then we could understand him.”

For the thousandth time I’m reminded that I’m not in the business of teaching young people what to think, nor can I make them believe. I can teach them how to think, I can teach them how to ask questions. I can tell them who I believe in and why. And I can walk with them, with patience and God’s grace, on the road to learning and faith that takes longer, yes, but is a journey all their own.

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