Questioning is mental adventure

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, months of darkness, constant journey, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Advertisement placed by Ernest Shackleton in a London newspaper, August 1914. Legend has it that 5000 people responded.

Questioning is a perilous activity. It is not as dangerous as travelling with a team of huskies to the Pole. But plenty of people have got lost between question and answer.

Asking questions places the questioner at risk. There is the risk of being thought foolish by one’s peers (for example, by questioning something that most people think is obvious). There is the risk of alienating oneself from one’s peers (for example, by posing a question that other people deem improper or immoral). There is also a psychological risk involved in questioning, particularly when asking the big questions of life. One never knows whether the question can in fact be answered.

The most perilous questions of all are questions concerning the origins and meaning of life. Often, when people ask these sorts of questions, they immediately grab the nearest answer (‘God’, ‘the Big Bang’, ‘Darwin’, ‘the Divine Spaghetti Monster’, what have you). It is as if asking the question has opened a hole in their existence that they need to fill ASAP.

The alternative is living with the lack of an answer. For many people, this is intolerable. But living without answers is precisely what one needs to do in order to maintain a questioning state of mind.

Questioning is a hazardous journey, safe return doubtful. Whether there is honour and recognition at the end of the journey depends on the company you keep.

One should prepare oneself for asking the big questions of life. Just as one wouldn’t leap into a workout without doing a few warm-up exercises first, it is important to steel oneself in advance of stepping into the unknown. It takes resilience to confront the questionable nature of reality. It takes courage to maintain the questioning attitude, resisting the temptation to close the process with quick and easy answers. It takes self-control to master the anxiety we feel as we traverse the space of questioning, sustaining ourselves in a state of mystery and unknowing.

If this makes asking the big questions sound like hard work – it is! Questioning is mental adventure. It is a contest with unfavourable conditions, a struggle through unfamiliar terrain.

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