Tired of the Old Story? Ask New Questions.

...no way/
to your future now but the way your shadow could take/
walking before you across water, going where shadows go/
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass/
except to call an end to the way you had come/…
— David Whyte, excerpt from Finisterre, Pilgrim

Tonight when it finished raining, my dog politely requested a walk. He does this by sitting next to me and intently staring at me until I get the hint. I am new to this neighborhood and decided, since it was going to be a short walk, that I would walk the other way, to the end of the street. I live on a dead end and I thought I knew where the walk would end and yet as I neared the end of the paved road, I spotted a path. So I kept going and found that the path went out through woods toward the river and to what looked like an old bridge embankment. You think you are at an end in one place, and you find another end, a different end—maybe even a beginning.

The river was moving quickly with today’s rain and it was leafy and green in the woods on the banks. It was a magical spot. Totally unexpected and it was only yards away from the neighborhood, but it felt a world away. It was a lovely jolt—to be suddenly transported, out of the work I had been doing and out of the neighborhood I thought I was in.

The funny thing is that it wasn’t the first dead end I had hit today. Earlier I had hit a dead end inside myself—a place where no matter how hard I try, I run up against one of my edges. I mostly try to ignore these edges, walking the ‘other way’ to avoid these dead ends. Walking the other way means avoiding situations or conversations that would have me in that dead end. But it’s hard to avoid them all the time, so mostly I rant against these edges and despair about them. In some ways the particulars of the dead ends don’t matter. It doesn’t matter so much what my dead end or your dead end is: Loss, fear, rage, shame, abandonment, vulnerability, despair. We all have some dead ends in our inner neighborhood—places we can get into, and it seems we can’t get out.

It occurred to me today that when I hit these dead ends I don’t need answers to my problem, I need new questions. Beautiful questions, as the poet David Whyte and the Pilgrim Satish Kumar described them in my class last year at Schumacher College. David Whyte describes ‘beautiful questions’ as questions that disturb our current thinking, or as he says in his poem ‘Sometimes’  questions “that make or unmake a life….that have no right to go away.” They are questions that put you in conversation with yourself, with your core, with your past, present and future. As he says in his Letter from the House:

One of the most beautifully disturbing questions we can ask, is whether a given story we tell about our lives is actually true, and whether the opinions we go over every day have any foundation or are things we repeat to ourselves simply so that we will continue to play the game. It can be quite disorienting to find that a story we have relied on is not only not true - it actually never was true. Not now not ever.

The story I had about my street was not true. It was a dead end for a car, but on foot it continued—and it didn’t just continue on, but it continued to beauty, to respite, to refuge.

So what about the stories I tell myself about the dead ends that I hit within myself? Can I ask that first question: Can you see a different path ahead? Is the story I am telling myself about this true? Is it still true today? If I kept walking, if I continued on and left the spot I call the end, what might I find? What am I afraid to find? What is the question I don’t want to ask?

These questions don’t fix your problem with your edges. You will still hit an edge, but it won’t be in the same familiar place. The thing about my walk tonight was that I still hit a place I could no longer walk forward. I stood on the path looking at the river and my dog put his paws up on the old granite bridge stones and peered over. For one thing, this dead end felt different. It felt expansive, beautiful, restful. But it was an end of the walk. Any next phase of travel would require a boat or a bridge or some other means of getting across water. But a dead end is only a dead end if you limit yourself to what you were doing before: if you only go forward in the same way you have been going.

And that is what I have to remember when I hit my own internal dead ends. You have to be willing to take a different route, different path, throw away the old plan and especially the old story. In order to ask yourself different questions, beautiful questions you must have courage. But I believe a fair warning is in order. If you ask beautiful questions you risk ending up in new places. You risk the heartache of leaving something or some part of yourself behind. You risk the story you know for a new story—and the knowledge that even this new story will also have to be left behind at some point.

So what is your beautiful question? The question that opens up a different path? The question that would change the conversation you are in? The question you don’t want to ask?

© 2016 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Pilgrim
By David Whyte