“Do you have any advice for somebody who just feels…stuck?”
Suddenly the weight of my own words hit me full-force and I struggled to get the final few syllables out between heaving sobs. I had just finished an emotional confession at a retreat put on by my alma mater’s campus ministry department, so I was feeling a bit fragile as I sat down with the (new) campus ministry director, who was seated in the back of the room and ready to listen to anybody who just wanted to talk. But I didn’t realize how breakable I still was until I asked that question of the campus ministry director. I apologized for the emotional outburst, and the director told me that it was okay to cry. I don’t remember much of what she told me after that. Except for one phrase.
“Live the questions.”
Accepting that I’m in a questioning phase of my life was probably the last thing that I wanted to do in that moment. For the last three years, nothing in my life has seemed concrete and steady. I haven’t been sure how to define my relationship with God or even my very self. If you were to ask me who I am and what I value, I’d probably stare at you wide-eyed and panicked as I searched my mental inventory of descriptors for the right words, and even then I’d doubt that I picked the right ones. I’ve been out of college for almost a whole year and I still don’t have a permanent job, which, you know, is kind of what you (and your parents) want after four years of undergrad education. I have barely any idea of what I want my life to look like and what kind of mark I want to make on this world.
And for most of the last few years, I’ve been treating these events as a puzzle, looking for pieces with matching edges so I can make sense of it all. I’m a big-picture person and a meaning-seeker, and if the little pieces don’t come together to make a coherent and meaningful whole, I get distressed. I like closure. I like when things make sense. I like purpose.
And now I have somebody telling me to “live the questions” when all I’ve wanted for the last three years is answers.
In the short amount of time that has passed since hearing those words, though, I’ve learned that God doesn’t always give us what we want. Sometimes he does. But much of the time, what we want isn’t what’s best for us. We want what will make us happy for the moment. We want it easy. Much of what I thought I knew about God years ago has been challenged, but if anything I know has remained the same, it’s that God wants what’s best for us.
And sometimes that involves confusion. Sometimes that involves searching. Sometimes that means wrestling with things like being stuck and not having answers.
But that’s how we learn and that’s how we grow. That’s how we get to know ourselves. Instant answers might make our lives easier and stress-free, but without the questions, will we ever really learn? Will we ever know what we really want in our heart of hearts if we don’t have to search for it?
This is what I’ve learned about “living the questions.” That questions shouldn’t be feared, but embraced and welcomed. That wrestling with them will lead to deeper self-understanding. And that God always knows what he’s doing, and that he always has a lesson in hard times, if we’re willing to accept it.
While at this retreat, during some quiet time at the retreat center’s prayer corner, I picked up a small, hand-held labyrinth and stylus and started tracing a path through it, from the middle to the edge and from the edge to the middle. If you’ve never seen one of these labyrinths, they’re basically round mazes. They look easy, since all the curves seem to follow a similar pattern and since they look symmetrical. But tracing them proves that looks can be deceiving; it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the actual path and the walls, since they’re so close together, and the path often takes unexpected turns. You can’t really trust your eyes to solve them; you have to trace the path slowly and just follow where you feel the grooves of the path leading you. Like the labyrinth, we can’t always rely on sight to get us through the hard times. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves and look for a solution too quickly. Sometimes we have to take one step at a time, without seeing the bigger picture very clearly, and trust that we’ll be guided in the right direction.
However slowly that might happen. We’ll always find the right path.