Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The “Right” Answer

Originally posted on July 21, 2012

(So here’s this morning’s reflection: seeing the title, that’s a funny spelling: It should be aensur  . Ah phonetics.)

There’s a whole category of answers that must be discovered repeatedly by people for themselves, an ongoing complex inner “map” that continuously gets revised. In this category are such questions as:
– What is God? What is Life about? How shall I live? ..and the like.

These questions share some interesting features: They depend not only on the out there, but also on the “in here,” on your readiness for wonder, your capacity to contemplate complexity, your various types of intelligence, the quality of intensity of your curiosity, your sensitivity to subtle perceptions and intuitions, your temperament, and so forth. Add to this what you’ve begun to learn in clear words and also what you’ve picked up by the subtle nonverbal communications of those close to you: What do they say with anxiety, worry, almost fierce intensity, relaxed gratitude, enthusiasm and delight, expressions of being loved and loving, and so forth. Expressions on the face, qualities of worry, tones of emphasis—these communicate volumes that  sometimes for many people never find words.

Is the god system scary or comforting—that’s a big, deep message. All kinds of other messages. Does everyone agree or do some people say it’s nonsense? Even if everyone seems to agree, why then are there all these differences among people as to how best to respond to this or that awareness. What is worship and how should it be done? Prayer? Is is really necessary to look down when you give thanks or is it okay to look at the faces of the various people looking down?

So, the first question is what really is the question? The “answer” may be temporary, what works for you, what satisfies for the moment.  For example, a joke: 
     Son: “Daddy, where did I come from?”
     The father thinks, “Aha, now is the time!” He pulls out the books and launches into a detailed explanation of human reproduction, pointing to charts, etc. At the end, he asks his little boy, “Any questions?”
    Son: I guess not. I was just wondering. Billy said he was from Cleveland.” )

Most people believe there are answers. They come to some conclusions about things and stop asking questions. A few others (me among them) think that the idea that there can be an “answer” is itself misleading. What is love, what is life about, who are you, really, and who, for that matter, am I? Such questions keep opening up. I used to think x but then I awoke a bit, or matured a bit, or lived a few decades more and experienced thing, and I’ve changed my mind. Things have opened up a bit.

This is my thinking now that I’m turning 75. There is no way in heaven that humans are even going to ever ever figure it all out. The idea that the human mind, having evolved a good deal over the last million years, is capable of really knowing about the Great Everything (which includes the absolutely complete way the human mind works) is an act of foolish pride.

Sure, we know more than we knew a century ago, and they knew more about lots of stuff than a century before that. It’s tempting to get intoxicated with the rate of human progress. But then again, consider the emergence of pride at eight year olds who are beginning to feel that they really know about a lot of things—such as what’s cool, what’s in, what’s smart—that their younger siblings age five seem oblivious to. So I ask: Is the feeling of knowing of third-graders as they view “kindergarten babies” really all that different from the feeling of prideful knowing of people who can use guns in relationship to people who’ve never heard of such weapons? Or do the most brilliant scientist-philosophers know really all that much more than the wise man in the most “primitive” tribe?

The whole idea of “answer” really needs to be called into question. In the first round, I’ll affirm that some questions such as “What is God?” needs to remain a question for one’s whole life, a good theme for living itself:
“Life is about finding out more about God.” You could say that, or you could leave God out for those who find that construct uncomfortable. You could say that it takes a lifetime to find out what your own life is about, and even then what you thought it was about may not be what others thought. Certainly not your enemies, or people who found your interests to be if not trivial, certainly of no interest to them. Even your most sympathetic biographer’s version would probably surprise you. So what was the “answer”?

The very concept that there are answers becomes foolish and more clearly limiting. For a lot of things, there should be no answer, ever. For many things, an answer is provisional, a useful construct that helps you get to where you want to go next in your mind. Some answers turn out to be only that: mental scaffolds that really can dissolve after they’ve done their job. Techniques for certain skills may be taught as important steps that are quite forgotten once those skills are mastered—this is true in  grammar and music and other activities.

The realm of schooling and tests have imprinted not only a goodly number of right answers in our minds—well, actually, some of those are soon forgotten, and most of them forgotten over longer periods of time—but the idea remains that there are indeed answers, right answers, and some anxiety is unconsciously associated with either knowing the “wrong” answer or not knowing an answer at all. But it’s all a lie! Almost every answer is theoretically or culturally embedded, qualified.  Two and two is four seems obvious except when applying the degrees of plane geometry to spherical geometry! Whoa! A chair is not what it seems when people use it for a step-stool or it is put into the middle of a circle of people who have always sat on the ground without chairs. The concept of answer is just that—a concept. With limitations.  

The other thing about answers is that believing there are such things, believing that answers really adequately and fully respond to the question, involves several assumptions: First, it closes off the next question: Hey, might there be an even better answer? Or, well, what about that answer? Do we really know what those words mean? Or, what if that answer is (gulp) mistaken?

It’s easier for an answer not to be mistaken when it’s the only response anyone has ever heard or come up with. Then the next unanswered question is, “Well, okay, that’s vaguely plausible. It’s a bit of a reach, but okay…. wait, might there be another answer?   It’s really hard to ask that question if everyone is holding tight to the first answer and maybe even giving social messages overtly or covertly of “don’t go there” about questioning further. And it’s hard to ask also if one has no clue, not even an intuition, about what the alternative can be.

But we must always differentiate between the impossible and the merely very difficult.

So there’s always somebody, if not in the tribe, then in the tribe next door—which is why they are our enemies—who questions what we all know to be true. And the more we live in a complex world where increasingly we transcend our tribal boundaries, the more we meet up with people who question what we thought was unquestionable. And that has been happening at an accelerating rate in this last century—and it constitutes one of the most important realities of our  current reality: The explanations, the answers, are no longer a consensus. The line “everybody knows that!” has replaced with “There are pretty smart people who think that is, to be kind, not the final answer.” Whoa!  As cultures multiply, classes, fields of study, types of science and literature, types of spirituality and philosophy and religion, traditions, sub-cultural fashions, media of all kinds, as these multiply and overlap, consensus dissolves, and with it, also goes the security of knowing the right answer.

So, back to the child asking, “What is God?” What if we would say that each person needs to find that answer for herself, and it’s the kind of answer that for most people will be revised, expanded, and modified in ways that cannot be anticipated as one matures and as the world evolves. And this is true also for questions such as what is life, or what should I do, or who am I, or all sorts of other fundamental provisional formulations that really need to be modified as creative growth unfolds.

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