Faith Gong: Living the questions
There was a moment in my mid-20s when I realized that I might not have my own opinions about anything.
A lifelong people-pleaser, I’d become adept at absorbing the ideas and mores of the people around me. On a superficial note, this was manifested when I went to a summer enrichment program in high school with many students from Southern Virginia and returned home one month later with a pronounced Southern accent. On a more serious level, I had lived two decades without really being sure of what I believed.
Looking back, I have compassion for my younger self. Having lived nearly twice as long now, I would never expect a 25-year-old to have completed the final draft of their life’s vision statement (and if they claimed they had, I’d give them a sympathetic pat on the head.)
But back then, I assumed that a marker of maturity was having the answers to life’s questions figured out. If I was doing life correctly, I’d continue collecting fixed opinions until I arrived at some future point where there would be no more uncertainty, just clarity. To be an adult was to be sure.
That looks ludicrous when I put it in writing. But don’t most of us believe this, at some level? How does our culture deal with uncertainty?
Obviously, opinions are important. I wasn’t wrong to be concerned that, halfway through my 20s, I couldn’t put my finger on opinions that I could call my own. My opinions reflect the deepest core of me-ness. They help order my priorities and shape my behavior. For instance: I adore children, books, and nature; therefore, I believe in supporting families, education, libraries, and green spaces, and will act accordingly. To have no opinions of one’s own is to be vulnerable to being blown about by the opinions of others — particularly those that are strongest or in closest proximity. And this is potentially dangerous: Just because an opinion is strong or prevalent doesn’t make it a good idea.
So it’s good to cultivate beliefs of one’s own. But our culture isn’t big on subtlety or nuance; instead of opinions being one component of ourselves, we want to make them central to who we are. The danger here is that, if I am my opinions, then I’d better not change them. To do so would be inconsistent; I’d be subject to charges of “waffling” or “flip-flopping.”
It reminds me of how my former pastor, the late Dr. Tim Keller, defined idolatry: “Idolatry happens when we take good things and make them into ultimate things.” We are prone to taking our opinions — be they political, religious, or cultural — carving them in stone, and setting them up on pedestals. Instead of distinguishing us from others by contributing to the wonderful diversity of humankind, our opinions divide us from each other and must be defended at all costs.
I spent much of my 30s and 40s building my beliefs, striving for certainty because I assumed that certainty was synonymous with maturity. I aligned myself with various causes and organizations, subscribed to e-newsletters, posted my opinions on social media, and even — I shudder to admit it — wrote this column with more certainty than I’d be comfortable with today.
As I near the end of my 40s, I find that I do feel more adult than ever before. And I do have a deep certainty about one thing: That I really don’t know much of anything. In other words, greater maturity has, for me, brought with it a loosening of the very certainty that I spent so much of my adulthood trying to cultivate. I have more questions, and far fewer answers. I fully expect to go to my grave with many questions unanswered.
And that’s a beautiful thing. There’s great freedom in not feeling the pressure to project certainty and cling to my opinions. It allows for wonderful connections with other people: I love what happens when I say, “Here’s what I think, but what do you think?”
This is not to say that I have no beliefs or opinions, that I’m just an empty vessel of a person. I have some deeply held beliefs that guide my behavior and my choices; I just no longer feel that those beliefs need to be defended against questions, or that I need to have all the answers. I love the vision of Barry Corey, president of Biola University, who said: “[W]e want our students to have firm centers and soft edges.”
Another of my favorite reflections on this topic was written by Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet:
“I would like to beg you…as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
In middle age, I am trying to live the questions, to have a firm center and soft edges. I wonder what might happen if our culture were to embrace this stance instead of forcing us to blockade ourselves with defensive certainty into our various “sides.”
One of the most pressing questions for me and my family is: “How will we survive this fall?” We now have five children in four different schools spread between South Burlington and Ripton, along with various after-school sports and activities, and all the other demands of life as a large family with a house and animals.
I don’t have the answers yet; I’m going to have to live that question. But one partial answer is that I have decided to take a brief sabbatical from writing this column. I have been so grateful for this space, especially over the past months as I’ve been working through some big and unanswerable questions. I have been deeply touched by the thoughtful and encouraging reader comments, both written and verbal, that I’ve received. It feels very hard to step away right now, but I’m certain that it’s the right thing to do as my family navigates all the changes and transitions of the next few months.
I expect to be back in this space, hopefully with renewed energy and inspiration, at the start of 2024. Thank you so much for reading; see you on the other side!
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.
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