“Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke

I am trying to go deeper with my understanding of this famous quote, which I loved from the time I first read it in Letters to a Young PoetLike most mothers, especially those who are also teachers, I find advice-giving comes naturally to me.  If I learn something, my immediate desire is to share it.  This enthusiasm for learning and sharing can sometimes be counterproductive to the goal of transformation.   We can’t learn as well from second-hand experience as we can from immediate experiences of our own.  The secret to great teaching and to great community building is to ask the right questions.

Rilke’s famous advice to the young poet–live the questions–came alive in our program staff meeting yesterday.  Using Peter Block’s book on community as a guide, we worked together to answer the kinds of questions that Block recommends.

Many questions people ask in groups are directed at placing blame (e.g., “how do we get people to be more responsible?”), and especially at projecting it outward.  Good questions carry commitment for the individual to examine his or her own mind, heart, and spirit.  Block says a great question contains three qualities:

1.  it is ambiguous.  Meaning is assigned by the listener, not the asker.

2.  It is personal.  Questions derive power from the passion of personal connection and commitment.

3.  It evokes anxiety.  Here is a Peter Block sentence worth pondering a long time:  “It is our wish to escape from anxiety that steals our aliveness”(106).

I believe Rilke would like these three characteristics of great questions.  I want to spend the weekend pondering what kinds of questions to ask my class on Monday afternoon.  What will awaken enough personal connection, ambiguity, and anxiety to be useful?

Shirley Showalter

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