3 Ways to Answer Unanswerable Questions

So you can get on with your life


Autum liquid amber leaves on green grass placed to form a question mark.
Autumn liquid amber leaves placed to form a question mark at Evergreen.

I recall an important world history exam in my final high school year. The supervisor at the front of the room set the timer for two and a half hours then signalled we could open the exam papers on our desks and begin.


At that moment my uppermost thought was a question: Will it contain the right questions? By the right questions, I meant ones for which I had the answers, like “What social and political events lead up to WW2?”, or “Why did Australia become a Federation?” If the questions were about the unification of Italy or the Great Depression, I wasn’t going to do so well.


But life isn’t an exam. We don’t study life in a classroom, then write as fast as we can to answer questions about it on an exam paper in order to pass.


In life, we’re questioned every day by others: Where did you go last night? When are you going to retire? What famous historical figure would you like to spend an evening with? And we ask ourselves endless questions: How come I’m so poor? Why won’t my car start? How can I stop bingeing on cheesecake? Who do I think I am?


We’re surrounded by questions.


We’re conditioned from childhood to be pleased with ourselves when we know the answers to questions thrown at us, hence the popularity of quiz nights, Trivial Pursuit, and TV programs like Mastermind. We get a high when we get it right. Yay! I’m good. I’m clever! we say to ourselves as everyone cheers and looks impressed.


But what about the questions that have no concrete, provable answers?


Why am I here? Is there a God? What happens after death?


Well, these questions are the best sort.


These questions keep us humble and quiet and open.


When we come across a question for which we don’t have an answer, what do we do? Probably Google it. If we pop the questions above into a Google search, we’d be glued to the screen till doomsday reading a variety of answers ranging from the erudite to the whacky.


But some questions, like the ones above, are too important to Google. Some questions need our personal attention, not someone else’s answers.


Unfortunately, our personal, concentrated attention may not give us concrete answers.


Now, let me imagine a hypothetical situation. I’m sitting in an exam room and the subject I’m about to be examined on is Human Life. The supervisor sets the timer for two and a half hours and indicates I can begin. With trembling fingers, I open the exam paper and read the three questions that have haunted me for most of my life.


Why am I here? Is there a God? What happens after death?


I’ve been studying the subject for nearly 70 years, and I still don’t have concrete answers. But the exam situation demands I answer them. So here goes.


Why am I here?


I’m here because one of my father’s sperm united with one of my mother’s eggs.



Is there a God?


I chew the end of my pen, then answer it with a question of my own. Would I live differently if there was a God eyeing me from the sky? Then I answer my own question, No. So, it seems it doesn’t matter to me whether there is one or not. I move on to the next question.



What happens after death?


Ah! My mind runs wild with imagery. A bright white light. Being greeted by dead relatives who've been miraculously restored to health and good looks. Gorgeous gardens flooded with iridescent greens, reds, and purples. Golden streets. Rhapsodic music.


Or glowing, superhot coals conjured by Dante’s Divine Comedy as I’m sucked into an eternal, screaming morass of bad human beings.


Or just nothing. Obliteration.


I drum the pen on the desk, drawing the scowling attention of the supervisor. I stop drumming and rub my forehead. Time is ticking by. I stare out of the window at a willow tree swaying in an invisible breeze, its yellowing leaves floating one by one to the ground. They’ll dissolve into the soil over winter and get sucked up again into the tree. Is that what will happen to me? My body will dissolve and I’ll reemerge in another form?


I’m sweating now. Pressure is mounting. I need an answer!


Just before the timer trills, I quickly write, I don’t know, put down the pen, and sigh. I don’t care if I pass or not. It’s time to leave the exam room and get on with what’s left of my life.


THREE WAYS TO ANSWER SEEMINGLY UNANSWERABLE QUESTIONS


  • Stick to the facts, which I did in the first question.


  • Ask another question, which I did in the second question.


  • Admit you don’t know, which I did in the third question.



Sticking to facts stops us from creating unhelpful stories in our heads and trying to indoctrinate others to follow our lead.


Asking another question allows us to focus on what really matters to us, instead of tying ourselves in knots with possibilities and probabilities – or impossibilities and improbabilities.


Admitting we don’t know something keeps us humble and quiet and open.


Let’s admit it – there’s a lot we don’t know.


But that shouldn’t stop us from living the best life we can.


And if you keep humble and quiet and open, answers that don’t have words may come to you.


With love, Marlane

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