Learning to Live with My Questions
“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we have the answers.”
(ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL)
On that autumn day back in 1979, I remember thinking that I was now moving into my “second half of life,” my “afternoon of life,” as Jung liked to call it. And I also recall thinking about the writings of one of my favorite writers, Rainer Maria Rilke, who always encouraged people to live with their questions until they discovered their answers for themselves. In fact in 1902, a young poet by the name of Franz Xavier Kappus wrote his first letter to Rilke. In it, he asked Rilke to read and critique his poetry. Rilke refused to do that but began a conversation with the young man. Kappus later published the letters he received from Rilke as Letters to a Young Poet. In this book, Rilke advised his young friend
“ . . to 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 written in a very foreign tongue. Do not 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. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Live the questions now so that at some point you will live your way into the answers. There is an art to living your questions. You peel them. You listen to them. You struggle with them. You let them spawn new questions. You hold the unknowing inside. You linger with them instead of rushing into half-baked answers. The Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello put it very well: “some people will never learn anything because they grasp too soon. Wisdom, after all, is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling . . . To know exactly where you are headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost.” As a matter of fact, those who loiter in the question long enough will live into the answer. “Search and you will find,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:7). I sometimes wonder if this means search long enough and you will find. It is the patient act of dwelling in the darkness of a question that eventually unravels the answer.
Kappus sought out Rilke with one question: is there a great poet waiting to be born in me or should I let that dream go? Kappus was looking for a road map, some critical help, and a direct answer regarding this, his deepest question. He never got that. Instead, he got a conversation about life, love and purpose. Rilke could have answered directly, but he didn’t. Instead, he told Kappus to “try to love the questions themselves.” Kappus needed to learn that sometimes the answers aren’t as important as the way we learn to live among the questions.
I have never been very good at living with my questions about life. I have always been the type of person who searches for answers. However, the question I was struggling with in 1979 was should I stay in religious life and the priesthood or, as Kappus asked Rilke, “should I let this dream go?” In fact, it was a question I had been struggling with for years. In the past, I was always afraid to actually ask this question because it raised such turmoil inside of me. Whenever it tried to break into my consciousness, I would push it down or try to run away from it. Emotionally and psychologically, I couldn’t sit with this question. It was too scary, too frightening to me. But this time, because of some things that had recently surfaced in my life, I decided to try and let this question have life.
Most of us know the feeling of longing for answers to our questions that do not come to us. Rilke, a devout believer, would have readily extended his advice to the spiritual level. In prayer, we too seek answers to our deepest questions. What am I doing in my life, with my life, with my love, my time, my gifts? Particularly, in the dark night seasons of our lives, our questions can be many but the answers few. The challenge in those times is to befriend our questions. But for me, how could I befriend a question that upset me so much? How could I entertain a question that had the potential to alter the course of my life?
It is interesting to discover that the Scriptures give us many examples of people asking questions and not getting answers, or at least not getting answers to the questions they asked. For example, the rich young man asked Jesus, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” He seems to have been a pious, devout young man but he left with a new set of questions to think about.
How could he learn to love the questions? Perhaps by re-evaluating his sense of personal pride in his perceived holiness. The woman at the well seemed to ask Jesus a diversion question about the place of proper worship. I don’t think she really cared, but she didn’t like where the conversation with Jesus was going. The answer she received left new questions. How might she learn to love the new questions? Maybe by sharing her experience of Jesus with her fellow Samaritans. The disciples, afraid of drowning in the storm while Jesus slept in the boat, asked “don’t you care if we die?” Jesus’ response left them with a new question about the depth of their faith if they would be right in Jesus’ presence and still be so afraid. How could this new question bless them? Maybe by reminding them that neither life nor death in the company of the Lord is the last word.
In Rilke’s first letter, he told Kappus “nobody can advise you and help you, nobody.” What might Rilke’s adamant negative response have produced in Kappus? I can imagine anger, frustration, or maybe despair. “If you can’t help me, who can?” But Rilke’s next two sentences are interesting. While refusing to be the solution himself, he does offer a path forward. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”
For myself, as I struggled with my question of whether or not to leave religious life and the priesthood, I sensed that my answer could only be found within myself. Although I had been sharing my question with my spiritual director and psychiatrist who were both trying to help me sort out the issues involved in trying to make a decision, I realized that ultimately the decision was mine. For me, realizing this was scary. Like Rilke suggested, I had to go into myself. But where would it lead?
The reason why the questions we ask in life are so important is because they give direction to our lives. It’s the questions we ask that give rise to our answers which in turn influence the many choices we make about how to live our lives. This is why it is crucial to ask the right questions. And it’s our choices in life that will determine the kind of person we will become.
In 1968, Thomas Merton wrote his second diary, which he called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He said that this book was completely different in its style and content from his first diary, The Sign of Jonas, which he wrote in 1953. This second diary was “a personal vision of the world in the 1960s.” It was different, he felt, because his questions about life, society, and issues in the world were very different. Over those fifteen years, Merton said: “these notes . . . are an implicit dialogue with other minds, a dialogue in which questions are raised. But do not expect to find answers. I do not have clear answers to current questions. I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, I think a man is known better by his questions than by his answers.”
After being in the monastery for twenty-seven years, Merton had come to realize the importance of asking the right questions for our lives. It is our questions that allow us to grow spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically.
Sometimes, we have to deal with other questions before we can find the right question. That is the way it was for me. Ever since I was a novice in our Order in 1962, I was constantly plagued by questions whether I could live this life. Could I live my vows in a healthy way and not be crippled by them? Could I find happiness in living community life? Over the years, I had lived with some friars who seemed to be unhappy all the time. For a variety of reasons, they were difficult to live with. Had religious life made them this way? Did living the vows end up having this kind of negative impact on their development? I was afraid that this might happen to me.
Later on, some of my other questions focused on several physical ailments I was constantly experiencing. What was causing these daily headaches that were so difficult to treat? Why was my stomach always bothering me? At other times, my questions would center around the depression I was struggling with. Not only why was I depressed but what could I do about it? I struggled with these types of questions for years looking for answers before I allowed the right question to seep into my consciousness—should I stay in religious life and the priesthood or not? What was the “afternoon of my life” saying to me?
Praise For I Was Gone Long Before I Left
“Peter Wilcox examines the painful life decision of leaving priesthood after twenty-five years, during a time of turmoil in the monastery, the Catholic Church, and the country. The author, a spiritual director and psychotherapist, turns his therapeutic skills inward and reflects on his anger, fear, and loneliness. His transparency and empathy can guide readers to look creatively at their past life decisions and learn to create a healthier future.”
—Mike Buckley, adult educator and educational sales representative
“Mark Twain said, ‘The two most important days in your life are: the day you were born and the day you discovered why.’ This discovery is every person’s challenge—if one accepts it. Peter offers us an example, sharing a unique and honest self-disclosure of his life’s journey into this discovery, a sojourn that is never complete until our last breath. Readers may glean spiritual and psychological insights into their own quest to find their true selves.”
—Dennis S. Dolasinski, a brother pilgrim
“Peter Wilcox’s book is an amazing and honest embrace of a courageous and inspiring journey from teenage years through seminary training and priesthood—to a second journey and significant change in life’s direction. … This is a book for you if you have ever been ‘gone before you left’: a lifestyle, a career, a profession, a vocation, or a job. Or if you are thinking about this.”
—Lillian K. Gibbons, retired public health professional
About the Author
Dr. Peter C. Wilcox is the founder, and former director of the Severna Park Professional Counseling Center, Millersville, MD. Before recently retiring, he was a practicing psychotherapist and spiritual director for 30+ years. Dr. Wilcox was also Assistant Professor at the Washington Theological Union and President of the Faculty Senate, Adjunct Professor in the graduate program in pastoral counseling, Loyola University, Columbia, MD and Adjunct Professor of theology, St. Bonaventure University, Olean, NY. Dr. Wilcox lives with his wife, Margaret, in Aiken, South Carolina.