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A letter to my unanswered question

Saturday, October 8, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

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I know you are not only mine. Everywhere I go I find people who know you, well. Who think of you as their own. I don’t mind. I understand. You have a universal appeal.

How can I live a good life? How will I know if I’m living one?

Please know, that although I am one of many who know you, and although you are one of many who keep me company, you are – for better or worse – never far from my mind. Please know, also, that you are in good company.

Will I regret not having children?

Will humans kill ourselves off in my lifetime? Or in our children’s lifetimes?

And if we do kill ourselves off, will the planet survive us?

Does it matter? And can I do anything to prevent it?

Why is it so easy to resist practicing yoga?

Why is it so hard to resist another glass of wine or another episode of Gossip Girl?

What’s the most important and useful thing I can do with my life?

Will I be ready for death when it comes?

Will I write another book?

Do I drink too much?

Do I spend too much time on Facebook?

Why is it so hard to write?

Am I a good person? How will I know if I am?

Am I a good daughter? Sister? Partner? Friend?

What do people say about me when I’m not there?

Do I really care?

Does not having children get me off the hook for all the flying?

Myriad though they are, they all lead me back to you: 

How can I live a good life? How will I know if I’m living one?

Thank goodness for books, and for the people who write them. Without them I would assume that you – and all the other unanswered questions I live with – were my own private form of madness.

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

I confess, my dear locked rooms, I find it hard to love you. Would it be too much to ask for a glimpse through a crack in the closed door, or a clue at what lies behind it? And if you are a book written in a foreign tongue, surely there must be a way for me to learn to read you.

“Do not now seek the answers,” wrote Rilke, “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. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So I’m living you, dear questions of my heart.

Is it more important to throw myself wholeheartedly into efforts to hold back climate change, preserve the ocean, protect threatened species, prevent wars, eliminate poverty, torture and slavery, reverse inequality, end discrimination and reduce suffering everywhere?’

Or is it more important to have time to call my grandmother every Monday afternoon, babysit for my friends, write letters to my cousins when their parents die, run errands, attend birthday parties, plant vegetables, tidy the house and run errands for my neighbours?

The trouble is that because you are unanswered, perhaps even unanswerable, I’m trying to live all of your possible answers.

I’m living the possibility that the world could be a fairer, kinder, safer, more just place, and that there’s a role for me to play in making it so.

I’m living the possibility that showing up for a friend when she needs me could be the most important thing I do with my life.

I’m living the possibility that the best thing I can do each day is get my yoga mat often and for long enough to bring a little bit of compassion and clarity to my world.

I’m living the possibility that the planet can be saved if we all throw ourselves behind the effort.

And I’m living the possibility that I would be happiest living in a cabin by the ocean, reading books, growing tomatoes and writing stories.

The trouble, dear questions, is that living you gets exhausting.

So maybe I’m doing it wrong? Live everything, said Rilke. Surely I’m not the only person who finds living everything a bit wearying.

How, therefore, should I live?

“My religion is very simple,” said the Dalai Lama, “My religion is kindness.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“We have not come here to take prisoners,” wrote Hafiz, “but to experience ever more deeply our courage, freedom and joy.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“We do whatever inspires people to help themselves,” wrote Pema Chödrön, “and whatever it takes to remove suffering.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want?” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, “Do I want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy?”

Doesn’t everyone want to be happy, dear questions? But what kind of life leads to happiness? And how therefore should I live?

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe, “Use what you have. Do what you can.”

How, therefore, should I live?

The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. So I follow you, my questions. I start where I am. I use what I have. I do what I can. And I have no idea what this all adds up to or where it is taking me. But at least you give me a direction to keep moving in.

So there it is – my ever-present, unanswered and unanswerable questions – without you I’d be lost, or – more likely – paralysed. Because you are, despite all my complaints and whining, the only map I have.


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5 Responses to "A letter to my unanswered question"

  1. Paula says:

    “The trouble is that because you are unanswered, perhaps even unanswerable, I’m trying to live all of your possible answers.” Ay, there’s the rub. I do this too. To distraction. Thank you for reminding me. I forget, sometimes, why I’m tired.

  2. leonie says:

    oh lordy, are you in my head?
    yes, this… all of this.

    i am continually living the questions..

    beautifully written Marianne.

  3. Szymon says:

    Hi Marianne,
    I think that you live a good life when you are happy with what you have. You don’t regret anything, you have people you can count on, you like your job, you have the healthy family. A lot of people have it, but don’t appreciate that. They try to chase things that are not going to change anything or are useless. Material things. New iPhone, new Ipad, new MacBook. Do you really need them or it’s because other people have that? Enjoy small things, because at the end – only those matter.

  4. Br Damien Shutt says:

    Good evening to you; the sun has now gone from Auckland & I am guessing you are down in the Wairarapa (My first teaching post)
    Your recent ActionStation email i have just read. Much food for thought. Thankyou.
    Wasn’t sure if I should reply to that but instead felt moved to try this site. And it has been good to find out you have been to Afhganistan & Timor Leste.
    I like very much what you write….’that the world you are living in may be a fairer, kinder, safer, more just place & that there is a role we can play in making it so’.
    So……..Marianne, please keep on encouraging us all.
    A blessing on your ActionStation.

  5. Szymon says:

    I think that everyone has his answer to this question. I believe that I am. I regret some decisions I did in the past and the girl I really liked left, but I hope that one day I will meet someone just like her or our ways will cross again. Our lives are too short to think about the past, but we should try to be better every day.

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