This winter, six long-time friends came to visit us at our home. No, not all at once and they did not know one another. But for about a month it was like being on a lively merry-go-round of memories, storytelling, shared thoughts and observations, and delicious potluck meals. A most welcome diversion in the middle of a cold spell.
Yet about a week after the last visitors had gone on their way, I found myself trying to pinpoint what it was that was bothering me. And what came to me was the troubling realization that there was a flatness in the eyes of one friend in particular, whom I’ll call James. James has a wicked good sense of humor and always in the past I could tell—even before he said anything—when one of his wicked good darts was on the way. But there hadn’t been any real darts in the two days he and his wife were with us. Halfhearted darts—sure—but nothing with the vigor and spontaneity we’d known in the past.
Then—as I thought about it further—it occurred to me there was a similar flatness, though not quite as pronounced, in the eyes of another couple whom we’ve seen more frequently. We knew they were dealing with a difficult family issue at the time, but the flatness in their eyes called up a line of questioning in me.
What was I seeing? Exactly when did I notice this expression—or lack of expression—with these dear friends? How did I happen to arrive at the feeling that I was observing something similar in their eyes?
I want to take a detour here to say that, in my experience, questions are among the most amazing wonders in life. I don’t mean just any, or many, random questions here, I mean questions that one feels driven to ask out of intense interest, longing, even out of desperation. I say “intense interest" or "longing” because I know there’s a big difference between questions from my brain and questions arising in my heart.
Questions from my brain are usually need or curiosity questions. These questions are important and can often be answered in physically tangible or material ways. For example, our dog is limping badly and can barely walk. I take an up-close look at the affected leg, explore it gently with my fingers and am baffled. Should I get him to the vet right away or wait till tomorrow?
This question might eventually lead to a heart question. Suppose the dog is truly injured or ill. Suppose the limp is caused not by a pulled muscle or a sprain but something more life threatening. The questions may go further, deeper—deeper not only into what is best for our dog but also perhaps into what is right for us too. With another family dog this inquiry led to having to make the difficult decision to put her down. We held her not only physically but with gratitude and appreciation and sensed she was not only ready but wanted to go and was giving us permission to say good-bye. We actually saw her depart as we looked in her eyes. The answers to our questions were not without sadness but they took both her and us beyond pain, into release and relief.
Not to say that all heart question are big questions like this one was. Yet action—either outward or inward—as in motion, change, a feeling of fluidity or release, indeed movement is an essential part of any real heart question. When the question is answered I know it through and through. There is a rightness to it, a calm, a sense of arrival and of being re-centered.
For me, questions are quests in and of themselves. And there may, in fact, be several different quests occurring simultaneously.
To return to the concern I expressed at the start as to the “flatness” I saw in the eyes of our friends: I asked my husband if he also saw what I saw and he agreed, yes, he could see what I was talking about. This led in turn to the realization I’d seen it elsewhere too, and not just in the couple that visited us after the visit with James and his wife. I’d seen it, and was still seeing it, here, then there, in the eyes of both people I knew—as in at the town library-- and in the eyes of people I didn’t know, as in at the supermarket. When you begin to see something you suddenly see it everywhere. There isn’t just one dandelion poking up, there’s another, and another, and another, and so on. Same with grey hairs, right?
It was as though a jumble of images, thoughts, feelings, observations and little red flags in every day life had lined up within me, forming an understanding of something I’d sensed in my heart but had not fully grasped. With that came the memory of the instant I first noticed the flatness in James’s eyes, when he was talking about Brexit. His wife told me later, privately, how upset she was by how much of every day he spent reading the newspaper on line and listening to the news. Likewise, the other couple had been talking about politics—in that instance immigration—when I saw the flatness in their eyes. I knew right then that the same flatness is in me too. A heaviness, a darkness, a kind of resignation, an inability at times to summon up optimism or any sort of hope or humor. Yup, I really missed James’s wicked good darts! It was the pronounced absence of those which called up the question in me, though I didn’t say it aloud: “James, where are you? I can’t see the YOU that is light, lively, on the move.”
Another question then unfolded from out of the various questions that had arisen in me over a few days, “Are we being drained, are we loosing vitality, even becoming sick, because of what’s going on in the world today?”
I’m, pretty sure friends of ours, including James himself, would answer with a resounding Yes!” And we would agree that limiting the amount and type of news we ingest is a good idea. (My husband sometimes has to remind me of my resolution on this score.) Yet, to come to a real heart response to this question, beyond a perfectly reasonable mental reaction, I believe one needs to let the question, or questions, go yet deeper within, in the way the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described in Letters To a Young Poet:
“…be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue… The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” (Emphasis is as given by Rilke.)
This may sound like an unsatisfying response to an enormous question I’ve happened upon, a question I’m sure many others are asking, pondering, and living with too. “If we are drained and loosing vitality, if we are sick what can we do? What should we do? How and where can we find the balm, the cures, the healing?” My point here, however, is not to answer these questions but, rather, to express confidence, indeed faith, in the questioning process.
For I find that when I listen within and hear, or formulate questions, and make space for them in both mind and heart, personal experiences open again and again, even ripen into, understandings. Understandings on the way to go, and keep going. How to live. Or, to be yet more specific, how to move with life.