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  • Writer's pictureAlaric Mark Lewis

On asking the right questions

Growing up, my grandparents had a second home on Patterson Bay, a sleepy little village (if you could even call it that) whose eponymous bay was fed by the Illinois River. It was, for me, a magical place of woods and water, of fun and shoelessness, of bountiful food and laughter, of story and belonging. If my world away from the Bay could at times feel small or constraining, the Bay itself offered me a freedom that was intoxicating.

As perhaps can happen when one gets used to freedom, any limitation that can crop up now and then begins to seem weightier; that which we cannot do can almost make us forget all that we can. And though at the Bay I could run wild and free with my cousins and do things I would never have dreamt of in my normal world, I was not allowed to go night fishing with the men who would load up boats with all kinds of things and head out beyond the placid waters of the bay, through the Ditch, into the Chute, and out onto the waters of the mighty river itself. The stories which surrounded these sojourns to the river were exciting - battling with barges, wrestling with catches of biblical proportions - but even as a child I knew there were loads of stories that were not being told, and I wanted to be a part of the fraternity which had access to those stories.

Now, as an adult, I can see how problematic my inclusion would have been, mainly because I hated fishing and had extreme difficulty with the silence and stillness that seemed to be prerequisites. It would have been disastrous had I been allowed to come, I know now. But I didn't see any of that back then; I just simply had to be a part of it and pestered my Gramps several times daily when word of an upcoming excursion would surface.

Gramps - no stranger to annoying grandchildren - handled my interrogative attacks with a mastery that would have made Sun Tzu doff his wangjin cap in respect and quite possibly add another chapter to The Art of War. Gramps would never answer my question outright, but rather say "You're asking the wrong question, Spark Plug" which, of course, would see me going away to think about exactly what was the right question that would see me being allowed to go on a night fishing trip. 

Of course, in this case, I never seemed to ask the right question, and so I never got the answer that I hoped for. But in looking at the question from different angles, I understood more and more. Which was, of course, the answer at which I'm sure my Gramps hoped I would arrive.

Like many, I was horrified by the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May in Minneapolis. My heart aches with sorrow for his mother; I am disgusted at those men who thought him unworthy of the basic human respect that should be afforded all people. And I have been saddened by the violence that has erupted across the country of my birth, devastated by the sense of hopelessness that has turned into justifiable rage at this event which is, of course, not just one event but rather an evil manifestation of a systemic and unrelenting sin.

And, as I read on social media what people have to say about the rioting, I am astonished that we still seem to be asking the wrong questions. When someone asks, "It's tragic what happened, but why do people need to destroy property?" it's the wrong question. Perhaps "Why do we live in a society where this happens over and over and over and over again?" might be better. When someone asks "What do they hope to achieve?" it's the wrong question. Perhaps "What can I do to make the world better for all of us?" might be better. When someone asks "Why can't they take to heart what Martin Luther King said about peace?" it's the wrong question. Perhaps "What can we do to give voices to those who are voiceless, that inspired Dr. King to also say 'A riot is the language of the unheard'?"

There are too many wrong questions being asked. And I think that's perhaps because the point of view of nearly all of them is us and them. When we ask "Why don't they ..." we're already on the wrong track, a track which has for far too long led to degradation, suffering, and death. Enough. There is no them. There is only us. If we can't see this - can't see beyond people acting in ways that we wouldn't necessarily act (because, of course, we've not had to act that way) - then we're a part of the problem. We need to be better. We need to ask the right questions.

The 5th Chapter of the Book of Joshua ends with an encounter between Joshua and an angelic visitor, the very voice of God. "Are thou for us, or for our adversaries?" Joshua asks the heavenly one. 

His answer? "Nay" - which isn't really an answer to the question at all. He is encouraging Joshua to look at the question from different angles so that he can understand more and more. Which is, of course, the answer at which I'm sure God hoped he would arrive all along.

And I am quite sure God hopes the same for us.

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