“So, what are you in to?”
In a church basement on a Saturday afternoon, I was asked a question I’d never been asked before. The usual question is, “What do you do?” I look the person in the face, meet their gaze, and I offer up what amounts to a canned response. I tell people what my job is, what my organization is called, and what it does. After that, the person might ask an additional question or two, and then it’s over. They know the mission I’m supporting, and they know what my role is. The predictability of this question can be a relief. I don’t have to struggle to find something to say. I’ve also spent enough time being unemployed to know that having an answer is better than not having one.
This new question was something completely unexpected, and in real time, the people in the room got to watch me as I stumbled. It was that moment I’ve written about, where I’m caught off guard, where I can’t think of something to say, and each second of awkward silence seems to build on all the previous ones, making me think that too much time has passed, and I’m more self-conscious in these moments than I’ve ever cared to be. Whether I have nothing to offer, or I have too many thoughts flowing into my head, the effect is almost always the same. I sputter, I fall down, and I’m not sure how to recover. Sometimes, I nervously laugh or crack a joke to diffuse the tension.
Despite my past failings, I did manage to say something:
“I like to read and write.”
I said it aloud, and I wanted to take it back. I felt like I was in the third grade. I also felt incredibly pretentious. I try not to volunteer that I write, and I even made a point of saying that I don’t take it too seriously. I know that’s not true, and so do you, but I felt the need to qualify it. Still, with this initial awkwardness out of the way, the conversation moved forward, and I was able to talk about my blog just a bit, as well as my taste in books. The conversation only got more interesting the more we traded details and interests. My job was asked about in an indirect way, and even then, it wasn’t lingered on. It was like having a conversation for the first time.
The question wasn’t a groundbreaking one on its face, but when you ask it, watch carefully for the reaction you get. Maybe the person will answer it without skipping a beat, or maybe they’ll be as caught off guard as I was. At the time, I didn’t know how I wanted to answer it. The old Adam may have changed the topic, or maybe I don’t know how he would have reacted. Still, I’m thinking about this question on Monday as I sit here and write this piece. It shook me out of my early morning fog and forced me to think, to be engaged. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
There are so many questions in our lives. Some are smaller, less consequential, questions like, “Do you want one sugar in your coffee, or two?” These are questions that we answer quickly, that we don’t give much of a second thought. There are no regrets, even if the decision we made was incorrect. Chances are, we’ll have more chances to get it right.
Then, there are the bigger questions. There are questions about existence, sure, but those can take a while to discuss, to dissect, and maybe you don’t have the time to go down that rabbit hole right now. Those are questions that should either be thought about when you’re alone, or with a good friend and maybe a glass of something potent. Maybe company isn’t a bad thing. You may find yourself in a world of discomfort before you realize it.
Rather than broaching the most difficult and possibly unanswerable questions of life, maybe we land on a more concrete question, like, “What do you want to do with your life?”
Anyone under the age of thirty has no doubt been asked this question, most likely at a holiday gathering or a family reunion. If you’re in college, they’ll likely ask you your major, the warm-up question before they fire the big one at you, the question to end all questions. I’ll be honest, I hated answering this question. Everyone seemed to want to know, and all I could think of was that I liked economics, but going for a PHD seemed like a long shot. I knew that I was enjoying life where I was, and that there wasn’t any plan for what came next. People like to know that you have a plan, and if you don’t, sometimes they’ll try to help you think of one. I don’t miss this particular part of being in college.
These questions about life and our life choices aren’t always easy to handle, especially when the answers aren’t ones we’re ready to offer. I know I advocate for being more open, but sometimes there are things you just don’t want to talk about, that you’d rather keep secret. You’ll know when the time is right to reveal what you’ve been holding so close.
When someone asks you to lift that veil of secrecy, it can feel like an attack or indictment. It can feel like they’re not just asking you, but that they’re prying. Maybe they even know the answer, and they’re setting themselves up to pounce on the weak one that you offer. This doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen, and these conversations don’t always leave you when the talking ends. Sometimes, you’re bitter and frustrated with the person who inquired, and you want to know why someone is trying to tear you down, or why they even care at all.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
It’s a question most of us have been asked, and it will only be asked more the longer that we’re single. It can come in several forms, something like, “Are you dating?” The questions are harmless enough, but sometimes, I find myself not wanting to discuss it. It seems to imply that my life isn’t complete without someone to share it with, that I should be out searching for said person, and that I should forsake all other pursuits. It makes me feel like unless I find a partner, my life is a partial failure, if not an absolute one.
Questions help us to gather information about each other. Rather than guiding the answer or molding it into one that we like, that confirms our worldview, we need to give people space to tell us what they have to say. We all have different paths that we take, and we arrive at our destinations in our own time. Definitions of success vary, and the faster you come to that realization, the more you’ll respect everyone else’s journey. Some people are just looking, trying to figure it all out, and that’s okay too.
It’s a fine line to walk. Some people won’t offer up information unless it’s asked of them, but questions can be phrased in a way that takes the sting out of them. Don’t offer advice unless people ask it of you. When you offer advice without it being solicited, it can seem like you’re answering the question for the other person, as if you know the answer better than they do. Rather than bringing your own perspective to the situation, allow yourself to entertain an alternate point of view. Sit back with a nonjudgmental and listening attitude, and see what the other person brings to the table. It might be something you never expected. Thanks for listening.
One thought on “3 Questions”
A nonjudgmental and listening attitude. Such sound advice. And going down a rabbit hole, with anyone willing to actively listen, can be awesome experiences. Nice perspectives, Adam!
LikeLiked by 1 person