I attend at least 10 conferences a year about women’s issues and usually come away with nothing more useful than a few participants’ business cards. Every now and then, though, an idea truly resonates. Which is what happened at a conference at Duke University, my alma mater, during a presentation called “The Heart of the Matter—What Is Your Question?”
When I saw that title on the schedule, I thought snarkily, How silly! I’m way beyond questions! At this point, I want answers! So I sat in the front row with my arms crossed as the moderator asked the six women onstage to share the one question “you are never tired of asking and will never know the answer to.” One panelist said her question is, “How do I live a life with purpose?” A dietitian asked, “What does healthy feel like?” Later, the moderator called on audience members. “How do I balance my life?” asked the woman sitting next to me. “How do we create a climate of self-reflection in this busy, turned-on, tuned-in world?” asked another. In a room full of women who all carried the burden of being the answerer-in-chief at home and/or in the office, the joy of asking a question for which you did not need to produce an answer was palpable.
Are you trying right now to articulate your question and maybe feeling inadequate because you can’t? You’re not the only one, but don’t start expe riencing achievement anxiety. If you do, “you won’t get the spirit of it,” says the woman who invented this exercise, Laurie Patton, professor of religion and dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke.
Your question should be fascinating to you—so much so, says Patton, that “no matter where you land and what you do with your life, you will always focus on your question.” She believes doing that is “a way of integrating our lives,” so that you’re looking for the answer both in your career and in your life at home. (Patton finds that women who’ve moved back and forth, seemingly at random, between work inside and outside the home are often not moving randomly at all; they are trying to answer their question, even if they don’t yet know what it is.)
It’s really important to understand, however, that you’ll never come to the end of the quest. That’s not even the goal. “A sense of purpose is not a sense of conclusion, of finishing,” Pat ton says. Instead, it is “a sense of being happy with forever being a seeker.”
I think we should all gather our friends, put some drinks on the table and ask one another, “What is your question?” Mine is, “How do I change the world?”—something to chew on for a few decades or more!
Let me know your question in the comments below.
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