Always Have More Questions Than Answers

gold-fortune-cookies.jpg

There is a Chinese Proverb that British philosopher Alan Watts tells. It goes something like this:

“Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, ‘We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.’ The farmer said, ‘Maybe.’ The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, ‘Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!’ The farmer again said, ‘Maybe.’” 

“The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, ‘Oh dear, that’s too bad,’ and the farmer responded, ‘Maybe.’ The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, ‘Isn’t that great!’ Again, he said, ‘Maybe.’”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
— Alan Watts

Or, as Psychologist Dr. Marlow understands it: “No event, in and of itself, can truly be judged as good or bad, lucky or unlucky, fortunate or unfortunate, but that only time will tell the whole story. Moreover, no one really lives long enough to find out the ‘whole story.’” The wiser thing then, she explains, “Is to live life in moderation, taking all things in stride, whether they initially appear to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather than always having to pass judgment on things and declare them as good or bad.”

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t know if I feel fully invested in this type of logic or perception of life. We as human beings are prone to feel - that’s why they call them feelings. Because they are alive - hence the “I-N-G,” gerund ending. And this is not to assert that there are no such concepts as good or evil. Or possibly that morality is entirely a matter of either perspective or an incomplete, personal narrative. And while discussions like this did get me out of a significant amount of trouble as a kid, Philosophy isn't exactly something parents want to argue about when you've been caught cheating on your math test in 5th grade.

Because we all know good and well, that the rollercoaster of life’s events causes us grief, anxiety, worry, uneasiness, but also satisfaction and pleasure - That there appears at moments to be both good times and bad. And interestingly enough, there is something from our collection of Jewish sources to be said on the matter at hand (after 3,000 years of talking we have pretty much something to say about everything):

For rain and other good tidings, one recites the special blessing: Blessed…Who is good and Who does good. Even for bad tidings, one recites a special blessing: Blessed…the true Judge. Similarly, when one built a new house or purchased new vessels, he recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time. The mishna articulates a general principle: One recites a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he does for the good. In other words, one recites the appropriate blessing for the trouble that he is experiencing at present despite the fact that it may conceal some positive element in the future. Similarly, one must recite a blessing for the good that befalls him just as for the bad. [1]

In other words, one recites the appropriate blessing for the trouble that he is experiencing at present despite the fact that it may conceal some positive element in the future. Similarly, one must recite for the good that befalls him just as for the bad. As the Mishnah states:

And one who cries out over the past in an attempt to change that which has already occurred, it is a vain prayer…The mishna articulates a general principle: One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him, as it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5)… “With all your heart” means with your two inclinations, with your good inclination and your evil inclination, both of which must be subjugated to the love of God. With all your soul means even if God takes your soul. “And with all your might”means with all your money, as money is referred to in the Bible as might. Alternatively, it may be explained that “with all your might” means with every measure that He metes out to you; whether it is good or troublesome, thank Him. [2]

While I don’t always prescribe to these measures, I think the ancient texts are pointing to an idea that is controversial - In that it’s difficult, challenging, or even complex to delineate and decide exactly what is good and what is bad, given that we don’t always have the full picture. I’m sure we all have stories about being dumped one day, only to meet your future wife by unpredictable circumstances the next week. Or missing your bus or plane ride on the way to an important event only to stumble into a life changing moment. And on the flip side, as we all know, when you’re in the pits, it doesn’t feel like you’re ever getting out - after something catastrophic occurs to you, I’m not sure anyone would feel comforted by a friend telling you that this is “All for the best.” Or saying, “Well, it’s all in the past now, no use in being hung up on that house that burned down.” That’s just not the way life works. It’s not even how people work.

Personally, I’ve always hated the saying that "God will never give you more than you can handle." Or the cute adage you find hanging in people's homes above the fireplace or on their fridge that reads: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.” But trust me, nowhere in the bible does it say that “God works in mysterious ways.” - Because the word mystery doesn’t even begin to describe the world or God. Personally, none of these things make me feel comforted when bad things occur. The truth is, I don't much believe in bad or good luck, but rather that life is just both unquestionably infuriating, saddening, but also beautiful and exciting.

tumblr_oflyv63A5H1qhjvxzo10_r1_250.gif

It reminds me of the 90's show Boy Meets World when the older brother Eric tells his younger sibling Cory, "Little bro, life's tough; get a helmet," and bops them right in the forehead.

But let me switch gears a bit and share with you a different story. One that I heard while listening to comedian Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, driving down to Florida last week. Something about it really struck me and gave me a new perspective, but this time, it felt more personal than the Chinese proverb. And interestingly enough, it’s not all that comedic or funny. Chapelle says:

“Picture, it’s the early ’50s in the United States. This 14-year-old boy goes down… from Chicago to Mississippi to meet his extended family for the first time. He’d never been to Mississippi. And before he went, his mother said to him, very pointedly, she said, ‘If a white man looks you in your eyes in Mississippi, look away.’ Legend has it, he was in front of a convenience store, hanging out with his cousins, having a good time, and a white woman walked out of the store, and he thought she was pretty, and he said… [wolf whistles] ‘Bye, baby.’ Not realizing that he had just made a fatal mistake. Four days later, a group of adult white men burst into this family’s home and snatched a 14-year-old boy out of bed, in front of his family that was powerless to stop them, and he was never seen alive again. His name was Emmett Till. They found his body maybe a few days later. It was in a creek, tied to a wheel so it would sink, horribly beaten and bloated. Hideous. And lucky for everybody in America… his mother was a courageous woman. She was. If you can imagine, in the very midst of a mother’s worst nightmare, this woman had the foresight to think about everybody.”

“She said, ‘Leave my son’s casket open.’ She said, ‘The world needs to see what they did to my baby.’ And every publication here in the United States, from Jet magazine all the way to the New York Times, had this boy’s horribly bloated body on its cover. And if our Civil Rights Movement was a car, this boy’s dead body was premium gas. This was a very definitive moment in American history, where every thinking and feeling person was like…’Yuck! We gotta do better than this.’ And they fought beautifully, and here we all are.”

‘And the reason that I bring that up tonight and why it’s relevant now is because less than a year ago, the woman that he allegedly whistled at… admitted on her deathbed…that she lied in her court testimony. And you can imagine, when we read it, we were furious. That was my initial reaction. And initial reactions, we all learned as we get older, are often wrong or more often incomplete.”

They call this phenomenon ‘standing too close to an elephant.’ The analogy being that if you stand too close to an elephant, you can’t see the elephant. You gotta step back and give it a better look.

“And on stepping back and thinking about it for a few moments, I realized that it must have been very difficult for this woman to tell a truth that heinous about herself at any point in her life. Even the very end. And I was grateful that she had the courage to tell it before she left this world. Because it’s an important truth and we needed to know. And then time goes on, and then after time, you can kind of see the whole elephant. And it’s humbling. Cause you realize that this woman lied and that lie caused a murder. But that murder set in motion a sequence of events that made my wonderful life possible. That made this very night possible. How could this be that this lie could make the world a better place? It’s maddening…

And that’s where I think we are left. That life sometimes is simply maddening, but also, wonderful. It’s just both. In many ways that’s why the story of Job losing everything speaks so poignantly to us. Because ultimately God says to him in the midst of his anger and frustration:

“Then the LORD replied to Job out of the tempest and said: Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge? Gird your loins like a man; I will ask and you will inform Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy?

And God goes on to make Job feel even worse about opening his mouth to begin with, but really, just like any day of the week, there are no good wrap ups to make everyone feel nice and warm about life. It just is. And that’s as far as I can explain. Because I like Job have no good answers - just more questions. All can I say is that we should always have more questions than answers.


[1] Berakhot 54a, The William Davidson Talmud
[2] ibid.
[3] Job 38:1-14




Aaron Sataloff