Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Why Living With Questions Beats Having All the Answers

Wikipedia has many answers, but not the ones you really need.

We live in a world in which the answers to so many questions are at our finger tips. A few quick searches can settle any doubts about the Magna Carta, the lyric of any annoying song stuck in my head, or the source of the marked increased of scratching by my dog.

The answers are all right there, ripe for the harvesting. 

Of course, this is remarkably handy. Many questions do require immediate answers—but not all questions, though the clothing of our language makes them appear so. Trouble follows when we want ready answers to questions that are not the sort quickly or immediately answerable. 

When faced with a question, we:

  1. Search for the answer
  2. Determine this is the answer.
  3. Conclude this must be the answer.

There’s a big gap between steps two and three. The philosopher Wittgenstein would ask about the nature of this must. What gives that must its necessity, or oomph

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I’ll start with a somewhat trivial example: I purchased a roof rack system for my car. The instructions were mostly drawings, with very few words. Instructions like this make me shudder. In assembling the various pieces, it was clear that two of the pieces must fit together in a certain way. There was no other they could go together. So I kept trying to jam and force these two pieces together, because I knew I was doing it the only way it could be done. My helpful companion and I were baffled. I had no choice. 

To YouTube I went, where I saw that the pieces could go together a different way. But I couldn’t recognize this for myself; because I was certain I had the right answer, it was not possible for me to consider the fact that there was another (better and correct) way to do this. (Confession: I had to return to YouTube again when I encountered another “problem.")

There are at least three morals to this story:

  1. The power of the must in my belief about how the pieces went together was all a matter of my want, preconceived idea, or certainty.
  2. My belief that I already had the right answer kept me from seeing other options and solutions.
  3. I was trying to make the world conform to my answer. I was going to make those two pieces fit because they had to fit this way. 

Now let’s move to more serious cases to get at the problem of must:

  1. Someone is in love with one person and engaged to another at the same time. She must commit to her fiancé and leave the other behind.
  2. Someone loves to write but also knows that he needs to earn a living. Writing and working do not fit together well for him. He realizes that he must commit to his career and put aside the dreams he had of being a writer.
  3. Someone has decided to get sober after many years of drinking. He must commit to one and only one program of recovery.

When we decide in advance that there is one and only one solution to a problem and it is this, we force ourselves into a very uncomfortable and perhaps precarious position. 

Consider the Greek myth of Procrustes, an outlaw who offered hospitality to people who passed his home. He offered guests a bed that would fit them perfectly. If the guest was too short for the bed, Procrustes put him on a rack to stretch him. If the guest was too tall, he cut off parts of his legs.  

We become like Procrustes when we decide this must be the answer. We will make our beliefs, hopes, expectations, and actions fit that answer, no matter what. We will stretch ourselves to the breaking point to make something work. We will ruthlessly cut off parts of ourselves or forsake parts of our lived realities that do not fit with the answer. 

The woman who marries the man she is "supposed to” instead of the one she loves may try to convince herself to love her husband. She’ll tell herself she had no other choice, that she owed her fiancé, and that she had to lose her love. 

The man who forsakes writing cuts out an important part of himself and denies himself an important aspiration. He will stretch himself to meet exacting standards and secure a life that on some level he may not really even want. 

The man who commits to one program of recovery—even if not believing some of its central tenets—may see others around him succeeding with that program. As he starts to falter, he may try committing even more to that program. It should be working; it must work. There must be something wrong with him

When you believe you know the right answer and that something must be the answer, you are trapped—actually, you have trapped yourself. You’ve done a Procrustes on yourself. As Wittgenstein wrote, “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that is unlocked and opens inward; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.” 

Each of us traps herself himself in a room or bed of our own making when we force ourselves to live certain answers. The poet Rilke captures the importance of living the questions—the questions that are life affirming. In Letters to a Young Poet, he wrote:

"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 now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now 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."

Maturity, wisdom, and sobriety enable us to distinguish the questions that can be immediately answered from those that need to be lived. These traits allow us to live questions about deep values, abiding commitments, love, and the meaning of life with patience and openness.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.


Subscribe to Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.