Living the Questions
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
In the fifth grade I joined the choir at my local church. I had big plans. I was going to be a singer, and I had heard somewhere that Beyoncé had gotten her start in church choir. I’m not actually sure if this is true, as I haven’t been keeping up on my Beyoncé research as thoroughly as I probably should be, but after a few years and a shaky solo rendition of Silent Night on Christmas Eve, I realized that the Catholic Church is not for me. Another realization: I am not, and never will be, Beyoncé.
Despite my aversion to the house of the Lord, however, I ended up attending a Catholic high school. I took a required religion class every semester. Sometimes they had fun names like Death & Dying. I can’t remember much when it comes to Spanish verb conjugations, but if you ever find yourself wondering how to recite the Our Father in Spanish, well, you’re in luck (Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo…). At school dances, couples would be chastised by a woman with a cross glimmering from her neck for the cardinal sin of allowing too many body parts, or maybe just the wrong ones, to touch while dancing — leave room for the Holy Spirit, kids.
Somehow, though, I look back on my days in Catholic school somewhat fondly. Not too fondly, of course; it was high school, after all. But there’s something about the fervor of faith that’s always seemed poetic and undeniably alluring to me. In a place where it felt like most everyone was competing in a four-year competition called Who Can Care Less, it was refreshing to be exposed to this thing that some people were so impassioned by. I may not have shared their feelings towards God, but I was passionate about their passion. What could it possibly feel like to believe in a being so much more vastly large and important than yourself? It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced, and it fascinates me.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in anything bigger than myself – I recognize that almost everything is bigger than me. But I refuse to be ruled by my smallness. I acknowledge my smallness daily, I give it a nod and I put my hand on its shoulder and invite it to sit down next to me on my bed for a while. Sometimes we fight, because I want to be Somebody, with a capital S, and it gently tells me No, you can’t do that, you are just somebody. You have a lowercase s but it’s alright, because so does everybody else and everybody is trying, including you, they are all trying so hard to do good or to be good or to just be human and all we can do is kiss them on the forehead and tell them to keep going and then we have to keep going ourselves.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I stopped believing in God, but I have a feeling it was probably somewhere around the time my smallness crept out of its corner and showed itself. Also, probably when I started reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut books, like that time I finished reading Cat’s Cradle and then cried in the bathroom of my childhood home. You know, about the inherent emptiness of existence, the meaninglessness of it all. Blah, blah, blah. Times like this one made me wish for faith, made me long for the comfort of something I didn’t believe with any part of me but wanted anyway. No matter how much I willed myself to believe, I couldn’t.
It seemed unfair that other people so readily and easily assumed this form of solace that wasn’t available to me. But my smallness and I eventually reconciled, and though we still have the occasional spat, I’d say we’re pretty good friends now. The reality (or, more appropriately, my reality) that nothing holds inherent meaning was a difficult one to come to terms with, but only until I figured out that I could assign my own meaning to the world around me. The things that are sacred to me are not bread and wine, but empathy, tenderness, light, literature and art. I am trying, always, not to seek the answers, but to live the questions.