I am a first-born. As first-borns go, I was quite a success. I was quiet, never made much fuss (still don’t), never contradicted (can’t say the same here), never threw tantrums, obeyed and followed rules to the letter. I grew uncomfortable around people who over-stepped, who were loud, who defied. I wished everyone were like me. A silent, organised leader who read instructions and delegated, quietly, to my siblings. There was one problem. I was insatiably curious – but I could never bring myself to ask questions.
So I turned to books. I devoured them in the hope of getting all my questions answered. The problem with this was, that the books I read were limited. If I had more questions, I could not type them in for Google to spew back an answer. So I lived in ignorance. When I once read dogs howled before an earthquake because their hearing was sensitive to seismic activity, I could not sleep for weeks when a dog barked at night.
Things got better as I grew up. I recognised the value in asking questions to get specific information, but I still did not pro-actively think about questioning and in a sense, I still don’t. I’m very rarely one of those persons who raise their hand at the end of sessions with questions for the presenter (though I’m getting better at interrupting during the actual presentation). I tend to take knowledge at face value. I get the questions later, when I’m trying to implement what I learn and I find I’m stuck. Then I have many, manyquestions. This is perfectly fine, but it also tells me that I’m a bit of a passive learner. I learn, I accept, I move on. But I’m not engaged as I listen. Unfortunately, there are times when not asking the right questions at the right time, is a missed opportunity.
I see this phenomenon around me all the time. When children first grasp language and are able to string words together, everything is a question. Every event, every moment, every person and every thing is a “Why?” waiting to be answered. The number of questions declines radically by around age 5. Very often, and perhaps unconsciously too, we are part of the cause for this decline. We do not encourage questioning at home, we do not encourage it in class, we exemplify students who like me, sat quietly in class and only raised their hands when they were told to. Before we know it, our little curious explorers turn into today’s passive consumers. That is to say, us.
Media, society and the economy at large thrive on passive consumers. It always had and it always will – accelerated by today’s notion of on-demand media. It’s easier to sell something to someone who won’t question the product’s origins, how much waste it will produce, how long it will last before it has to be replaced. Politicians have an easier job of convincing someone who won’t question the person’s true motives, who won’t ask the uncomfortable questions, who won’t overstep. People, in other words, who grew up like me, applauded when silent and meant to feel uncomfortable if the tough questions are asked.
We live in a tight-knit society of people with a history of being told what to do, what was right, what was wrong, what the penalties for speaking up were. It’s easy to point our fingers at our fathers and blame them for being as we are – loud when there is no need to be and silent when we should cry out. But then, we’re missing the whole point. If everything, if every small change starts with “why?”, whyare we still not asking the right questions? Why do some of us live entire lives without once turning inward and asking, “Why am I here? How am I contributing to my family/society? How can I do better? How can I be better?” Worse still, why do we get impatient at people asking questions? And why do I still squirm when people ask uncomfortable, but entirely reasonable and often goodquestions?
In Maltese we have a saying that goes something like this: the question is the sister of wisdom. I think somewhere along the way, the wisdom part fell in a crack somewhere and we ended up with the question is the sister of…leaving everyone with their own interpretation. The sister of the nosey, the stupid, the trouble-maker, the naughty, the confused, the lost. That is very sad. What is sadder, is the fact that this not a problem for Malta, though it is rampant for such a small country. It is global. It is the reason why Trump is president, why people make fun of Greta Thunberg, why some men still won’t talk about periods with a straight face and why some women think locker-room talk is just boys being boys, even if the subject is insulting to their own sex. It’s the reason why we feel empty when we are most rich, and why we think we must always be happy to lead a good life and “be the best version of ourselves”. Somewhere along the way, we failed to scrunch our face up just a little and say – “Wait… but, why?”
And if you still think questions are over-rated, think about how everything you see around you, all the things that make your life comfortable and that you take for granted, started with a question. Why should I have to carry this heavy boulder on my shoulder? Why does the apple fall? What if I rode a beam of light? Why shouldn’t women vote? Why do I have to wait for a picture? What if countries competed on playing fields instead of battlefields? Why shouldn’t girls be allowed to go to school? Why should I give up my seat for a white man?The things you marvel at, use every day unconsciously, do without a second thought, are all product of someone scrunching up their face and saying “Wait… but what if…?”
Some people are content the way things are going. They are unfazed by what happens beyond their walls and will continue being so until they are personally affected in some way or another. Then they will stir up a sh*tstorm and will probably bulldoze over everything just to get their point across. They will not question the reason behind the action done to them, they will simply assume they (or their kids) are right. We know many of these people. Don’t be like them. Don’t be indifferent to everything until it hits you in the gut. And when it does, don’t assume – ask.
Give yourself space to ask yourself the hard questions. The ones that give meaning to your life. Ask for space to get your questions across at home, school or at work. Don’t hesitate to raise your hand when not asked to. Your burning question might be of benefit to the whole class. Speak up when something does not seem right to you. Don’t shy away from tough questions. I haven’t found my voice yet for it but I’ll get there too. Let the question be the mother of wisdom, not just its sister.
There is an infinite number of reasons why we should. Because the world is experiencing its longest period of relative peace – but it can still be a horrible place to live in. Because there is no moving forward to a better place, without questioning the present. And because a three-year old scrunching up his face to ask why again deserves a place where his questions, not his silence, are applauded.