Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on October 25, 2011

I’ve realized that in the 20th century a major subtle attitude emerged: that there were “answers.” It was okay to ask questions and the unspoken message was that someone somewhere did have an answer. What wasn’t said explicitly enough was that indeed, there were answers to some questions, but this accounted for perhaps only around 4 – 8% of the questions asked or problems we faced. Since much of school and other authority rested on the illusion that authority figures knew answers, this underlying assumption was rarely directly confronted. So I’m doing it here:

The vast majority of the time there are no answers, for all sorts of reasons. One is that the situation is immensely complex and overlaps into other fields. Second, many people who know “right answers” cannot extend themselves into those other fields—so, for example, a child who asks “what is that?” may be answered, “a cow.” Now that satisfies more kids, but a few then ask, “why?” Their question may be just habit—a way of asking why to every answer. Also it’s an unconscious way to needle answer-givers. But the real answer shifts in several directions: How are things named, in terms of linguistics? What are the criteria for identifying a cow from a horse or a giraffe or some other thing of moderate size?

The point quickly shifts to what aspect of a problem is a person asking about—and this is not generally acknowledged enough. “It depends” seems evasive to those who haven’t yet really recognized that there might be other viewpoints or purposes other than what’s on the questioner’s mind. I mean, doesn’t everyone look at the situation from my viewpoint? This is often unconscious, a lack of sophistication. On one hand, it’s childish; on the other, it’s surprisingly pervasive, because many well-educated people on encountering a new field don’t even know there are different aspects to a given idea or object.  For example, when I undertake a new computer or internet project, I often don’t even know the available categories in a given program, to the point of not even knowing the right questions to ask.

What is the meaning of life is a key example, because there is no “there” in the sense of out there one right answer for all people in all situations. It depends refers to the deep truth that so much depends on one’s interest or goal, context or aspect being asked about. Then there’s the deep truth that one person’s deep truth doesn’t work for another person. It hasn’t been adequately appreciated that people are really quite different in goals, interests, the ability to understand, modes of learning (e.g., some people learn better through reading or charts than hearing), and other variables. How intense is the need, what would the person do with the information, and more, it’s often not a matter of information at all.

Sometimes, when sincerely asked, the question is really a request for some help in warming up, in wanting to discover one’s own thoughts or reactions, and the answer is really meant only to be a springboard for further thought. The classic example here is when a spouse asks which outfit to wear and having received an answer, goes ahead and decides in spite of her spouse’s preference. “Why did you ask if you were going to do it the other way?” The spouse who decided might not admit—even to herself, “Oh, I just used the interaction to get my own thinking going.”

Another thing about answers is that they may involve many possible approaches—the question is itself just an opening to a vast arena and a hundred more specific questions are needed. How are you feeling, asked by a physician, seriously, and answered seriously, only opens the process to a chain of further questions to narrow down the possible solutions to “why.”

Many things are really more a matter of negotiation, of preference and compromise, of problem solving about what might satisfy the parties involved. What if it sort of satisfies, but does not completely satisfy both parties. The issue isn’t who’s right, but rather how the parties involved feel about peacemaking as a value, and the willingness to keep the other parties happy, and what is willing to be sacrificed. Hint: It’s not a “right” answer.

So this mini-essay is just a nudge in the direction of challenging current world-views, socially acceptable expectations, the status of asking “why.” It’s more subversive, though, because if we recognize that most of the time answers are nowhere to be found, and the idea is misleading, then we need to shift into a more creative mode of thinking, which requires more initiative, more tools for problem-solving, and the relinquishment of the tendency to seek a solution from authorities.

One Response to “Answers?”

  • Rachael says:

    How true it is that most questions in life do not have objective answers. I recently read a book called “The Walk” by Richard Paul Evans. In it, there was a person who explained that when he was in school, the teachers had special editions of the text books called “answer books.” He said he wanted to find that answer book, and then he’d know everything. It was a poignant reminder that there is no answer book for life, and even if there were, it would be inadequate.

    I will watch this blog for a while.

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