James E. Ryan, Wait, What? and Live's Other Essential Questions (2017) (8/3/17)
Ryan suggests that we would all do well to ask five basic questions, all the time:
"Wait, what?" is the root of all understanding. It allows us to slow down, not jump to conclusions or make snap judgments, but to ask for clarification. It "is the first step toward truly understanding something—whether it is an idea, an opinion, a belief, or a business proposal."
"I wonder . . . ?" breaks into two basic questions: "I wonder why" is "at the heart of curiosity, and asking this question is the way to remain interested in the world around you, including your place in it." "I wonder if," equally essential, is the way to remain engaged with the world and to think about ways to improve your corner of it. "Why" gets at how things got to be the way they are, "if" gets at ways we might stretch ourselves, or stretch the world as we know it to make it better.
"Couldn't we at least . . . ?" is a question that can spark movement. It helps to "break logjams, whether created by disagreement, fear, procrastination, or lethargy, and whether created by external obstacles or internal ones. . . . It is the question that also recognizes that journeys are often long and uncertain, that problems will not be solved with one conversation, and that even the best efforts will not always work." That said, it is also the question that recognizes you have to begin somewhere.
"How can I help?" is the question at the base of all good relationships. It signals that you care, that you are willing to listen. "It also signals respect, humility, and the likelihood that, in the end, it is you who will be helped just as much."
"What truly matters?" This gets at the heart of life, of course. Ryan boils it down to family, friends, work, and kindness—which sounds about right. I might add openness to the unknown—which is a form of kindness, but I mean it in a less people-oriented way: be not afraid.
He also includes a "bonus question," which is based on Raymond Carver's poem "Late Fragment":
And did you get what you wanted from this life?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
It's a nice little book. Ryan includes various personal stories—about finding his birth mother (that one got to me), about the births of a few of his children, about working for Chief Justice Rehnquist, about friends and colleagues. There's nothing earth-shaking about the book: the lessons are all obvious. Don't be closed-minded, do be curious, sometimes baby steps are required, listen actively, and pay attention to what brings you meaning.
I do appreciate the way he poses these things as questions, ones we could all stand to use in our day-to-day lives.
The "I wonder . . . ?" chapter reminded me of our late friend Duane, who used that question all the time—sometimes to our exasperation. His curiosity and open-heartedness were a gift. Reading that chapter made me miss him all over again.
If you don't want to read the book, here's Ryan's commencement address. He starts in on at least some of the material covered in the book a little after minute 9.