The 2 most dangerous (and fascinating) questions you can ask are “Why?” and “What happened next?” Although every two-year-old asks these, I’ve learned just how dangerous (and enlightening) these questions an be, as I’ve traveled across the planet in my 71 years of living.
In the course of asking people for their stories I’ve gained listening skills that have taught me what people in different cultures (and my own) believe about themselves and the world around them. These deep-rooted beliefs are the key to their perception of their own history which, in turn, is the key to the political situation they find themselves in. Wars could be avoided if we could listen to the archetypal stories that “alien” cultures hold to be true.
But the most dangerous (and useful) word you can have in your vocabulary is “Why?” Why do we believe this and not that? Why do we do things this way and not that way, which is easier/better/more efficient? This question is what sparks revolutions—in the classroom and in the street—and it has brought down governments time and time again.
The greatest minds of the twentieth century (many of whom I was privileged to meet) all accomplished what they did by asking these questions. These people included a Nobel Prize-winner at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ; Dr. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard (our discussions were conducted on a shoeshine stand at Grand Central Station in 1997); Richard Feynman of Cal Tech (who wanted to be an artist); the only Native American in our national park system, a Crow Indian encountered at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1976; Saul Landau, a sort of reverse Jesus, who was first “crucified” (in Buchenwald) and then came back to teach the gospel of profound joy; Ivan Illich, father of the “deschooling” philosophy; Michael Greenebaum, my World History teacher at New Trier Township High School (also my Great Books teacher); Bonnie Myotai Treace, my sometime (and continuing?) sensei at Fire Lotus Zendo; Bob Gilruth, the creator of NASA and our lunar program (a cousin); and others who responded to my letters after I had read their books. In Mexico there were virtually no barriers: one could read something and then walk into the author’s office and sit down, a privilege we have long ago lost in our once-great country.
I will continue with this post later—but it is now 4:20 a.m. and I just woke up thinking about all these fabulous people and what would be lost if I didn’t bear witness to them and what they shared with me when I asked these questions of them (and they asked them of me).
More (and better) writing to come . . . stay tuned!