The other day as I was listening to NPR, I learned of the death of Edwin Schneidman, a pioneer in the study of suicide and founder of one of the nation’s first suicide prevention centers. Working at a time when the study of suicide was shunned, Schneidman believed that two simple questions — “Where do you hurt?” and “How may I help you?” – could begin to diffuse the impulse to self-destruction.
For me, Schneidman’s insight demonstrates a simple, but enormously powerful truth: a question is a mysterious thing. A question is a turn of language indicating an empty space, something unknown and desired. It reaches out of the self to touch another person or thing—to unlock a door of isolation and pain, to see the past, to explore the present, to search for God. Questions direct our inquiry, leading us forward like pathways through the underbrush. Questions inspire us, provoke us, prod us to action. They are tools, they are weapons, they are instruments of love. Questions can make us believe that someone wants to know.
People think a great deal about how to phrase questions to facilitate the smooth and effective exchange of information. How can we learn what we really want to know? How can we get someone else to say what they really want to tell us? How do we ask a good question? A precise question? An open-ended question? A pointed question?
But the real mystery is the question itself. Where does the question come from? How does it work? And can it bridge the space from me to you?