By Dr. Farah Naqvi
Socrates observed that the ‘wisest is the one who knows that he doesn’t know’. Isn’t it true that the more knowledge one acquires, the more one realizes how less one knows? Knowing what one doesn’t know is also a kind of knowledge. But how to know what all one doesn’t know? One simple way is to develop a thirst for knowledge seeking and keep asking questions. As babies, we are born with a sense of wonder. Spend few hours with a child, and it soon leaves one amazed at the number of questions they can ask or how they react with overt excitement to common sights or sounds-be it a street cat, the clouds, rain, sound of a bird or a firetruck. Children ask questions, for they are fueled with curiosity and lack adult inhibition. Asking questions is essential because it helps us uncover facts that would otherwise remain shrouded in darkness. What space and milky way look like, was once shrouded in mystery. The sense of amazement and wonder in children is akin to the philosophers and scientists who persistently keep searching for answers to difficult questions. This article is all about asking questions- to self, in interpersonal relationships and as a member of a civic society.
We must keep asking questions to self, for sometimes the ‘question’ may remain the same, but the answers keep changing. Years back as a psychology student, one teacher made us write statements to the question- ‘Who am I’. Now a decade later if I ask the same question to myself, the change in the answer will give me an insight into how I have evolved over the years. Similarly, the timeless question like ‘what is the meaning of my life’, has thronged the minds of countless individuals forging them to discover themselves. The questions we ask ourselves shape our behavior, so it’s important to reflect on the questions we ask. Difficult situations in life such as a demanding job, health issues, complicated relationships, being a primary caregiver or other challenging scenarios trap people in asking disabling questions like- ‘why me, when will this get over etc.’ Such questions don’t help, but rather perpetuate habitual, self-defeating thoughts, and eventually envelop individuals in a self-victimizing cycle. The desire to change one’s behavior and outcomes instead call for changing the very question we ask like, ‘what can I do about this, what alternatives do I have etc.?’ This may sometimes require one to forego the addictive pattern of thoughts and beliefs developed over the years.
Asking questions in interpersonal relationships do not merely guide a conversation but can help to strengthen a relationship by eliminating any existing confusion, assisting us in empathizing with the other’s viewpoint, solving a problem or merely agreeing to disagree cordially. However, it is important that if one asks a question, one should be sincerely interested in listening to the response putting all biases aside; otherwise, it will be of little use. People hold back from asking a question for multiple reasons like the fear of being judged or misunderstood. The pressure to confirm to a particular group’s ideology based on religious, political, work or family affiliation also prevents people from asking questions that can risk their position as a member of the group.
Unfortunately, these days using one’s reason or asking questions is seen as disruptive. With easy and quick access to information suiting our biases, most people readily chose to be satisfied with whatever little they know and what is dumped on them by the media. The biggest sign of being alive and human is that we continue to use our reason. A society that fails to optimize on the ability to reason thwarts its progress becoming impoverished and dependent. When a society gets tamed to accept power holders’ opinions as ‘facts’, consequences can be perilous. Authorities or governments that seek to maximize their control over the masses and use power to their personal advantage, start by throttling the right of people to protest or ask questions; so that people can wholeheartedly believe in the stories narrated by them. When people consistently exercise restraint over asking unbiased questions, gradually they become apathetic and numb. The worsening situations around them don’t haunt them, unless it affects them in a way that forces them to step out of their cocoons. Choosing not to ask questions can be a personal choice but what about stopping or labelling anyone asking questions which is contrary to the programmed information being played repetitively.
One interesting thing about Socrates was that he never lectured rather chose to begin a conversation with a question as if he knew nothing. He strongly believed that the ability to distinguish between right and wrong lies in people’s ‘reason’ not in society. By playing ignorant he forced the people to use their commonsense realizing the weakness of their own arguments over the course of the discussion. Socrates, whose mother was a midwife used to say that his art was like the art of the midwife. She does not herself give birth to the child but is there to help during its delivery. Socrates by making people think, and question assisted them in giving birth to the correct insight.
It’s important to remember that questioning not only expands our worldview but help us organize our thoughts around what we don’t know, that is the first step towards progress. It’s not only the questions that we ask but the questions we are asked, influence us. Some questions can be malignant carrying veiled agendas behind them like creating dissonance in the minds of public polarizing them on petty issues and distracting them from real matters of concern. Hence, it’s important to pay equal attention to the questions we ask, questions we let others ask, the questions we stop others from asking and questions being posited before us each day.
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