The Power of a Question

Wisdom comes often in small packages, and words are often small packages of meaning waiting to be opened. This is the beauty of poetry; it is a gift that I do not have. To capture meaning in the smallest of packages. To express that meaning in a single word. In this, I am lost as a writer. I am in awe of those who can write poetry. For me, it takes a plethora of words. But there are times when meaning is grasped in a small package. The problem is that this meaning is elusive.

I read Elie Wiesel’s Night for the first time quite late in life. I believe I picked it up for some light summer reading between college and seminary. Maybe I thought it would be a good Beach book . . .

Of course I knew it was a holocaust book, and I think I had avoided it for that very reason. The extermination of a entire race of humans while the world watched was not really something that my “recently freed from reading lists” mind was ready to grapple with. I was, after all, still going to live forever. Extermination wasn’t possible, and so dealing with it in literature just wasn’t necessary.

Much of that changed for me in 1991, but that’s a story for a later time.

So, I picked up this tiny book and began to work my way through the evil that humans are remarkable skilled at inflicting on others.

And in its opening sentence, I met a man who would forever change the course of a young life: Moishe the Beadle. If I may be forgiven for being a young geek, he was Obi Wan, Yoda, Gandalf, and perhaps most of all, Mr. Spock, rolled into one. His is the wisdom of the ages in a small package.

Elie writes of Moishe in Night:

He had watched me one day as I prayed at dusk.

“Why do you cry when you pray?” he asked, as though he knew me well.

“I don’t know,” I answered, troubled.

I had never asked myself that question. I cried because . . . because something inside me felt the need to cry. That was all I knew.

“Why do you pray?” he asked after a moment.

Why do I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?

“I don’t know,” I told him, even more troubled and ill at ease. “I don’t know.”

From that day on, I saw him often. He explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer . . . (Wiesel, Elie. Night. 4-5.)

As Socrates taught us, questions open up dialog. They are the tiniest package of wisdom that I know of. They are troubling. They put us ill at ease. They wake us up at night. The frighten us in the brightest day. The chill us as we suffer through the hottest summer in history. They are the first realization that there is someone/something outside of ourselves. They are our attempts to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us. And so in the voice of a scary smart little girl, we look to the sky and ask in a quiet, child-like voice, “Why?”

That is the smallest package I’m capable of creating, and it’s wisdom is always elusive. Questions possess a power and a wisdom that are lost in the answer. Perhaps, in other words, some questions aren’t meant to be answered.

The problem of evil may be one such question. I think it’s important to acknowledge that I don’t know everything. I think it’s also important to keep asking questions. Question inspire dialog. Dialog leads to connection. With connection comes the possibility of wisdom. And so we ask together in child-like voices, “Why?”

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.