Pondering the Questions


“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it–but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.”–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the book Letters to a Young Poet. It is short, only a few letters written more than a hundred years ago. A young poet, Frank Xavier Kappus, wrote a letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke asking for advice on poetry, love, and life. Rilke replied and they shared a correspondence over several years. Ten of the letters are in the thin and lovely book. My enthusiasm for the book and its apt advice have led me to give it as a gift to a few people I love. I return to the book at least once a year, and read those letters as if Rilke meant them for me. In some ways, I think he meant them for himself at a younger age, and for all of us who read them.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, a young poet writing to an established, older poet. The older poet shares his lessons, but knows that some can only be discovered, not through advice, but by stubborn experience. As the young poet in the introduction writes, “. . . Life drove me off into those very regions from which the poet’s warm, tender and touching concern had sought to keep me.”

I find myself right in the middle, of age, of life. I still feel young, a beginner. And yet, I have always felt old, not quite the age that I am. It seems to be a lovely place. I have some wisdom and wrinkles, and yet, I hope, some time to live and apply those lessons. I feel like a beginner, every day, in the best way.

I reread a couple of the letters this week and it felt like perfect timing for a self-discovery exercise I have been in the middle of doing. A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon a free webinar (which became a sales pitch at the end) to help people with goal setting. The webinar was a conversation with the founders of a goal setting model, Lifebook. I took thorough notes and ignored the sales pitch. The conversation focused on the fact that most goal setting only takes into account a very shallow part of life: education, career, finances. Their critique was that one needs to look at the whole life in order to set goals and move forward. They also talked about how important it was to really take an evaluation of where you are in the moment, what beliefs and habits have gotten you there, where you want to be, and what you will need to get there. There are 12 areas that they focus on, with the same four questions to ask yourself for each area.

Every morning this week, before work, I have worked on the questions for one area. I figure I would work through the rest of them during my work weekend. It feels important for me to work on these, right now. On the surface, they seem simple and I think that’s what makes it easy to begin.

Since I didn’t subscribe to the expensive book and ongoing coaching, I have to guide myself through them. In the mornings, I plant myself on the couch, fueled with coffee and blood oranges, with my favorite pens, a clipboard, and plenty of printed-on-one-side-scrap-paper that I scrounged from an old work place. Sometimes, I play quiet music in the background, but most of the time, I have listened to the spring wind roaring, which feels appropriate. The wind stirs up dirt, pollen, and anything light. The questions, and pondering and answering them, stir up my memories, my beliefs, and my vision for now and next.

If you care to take a look, you can do an internet search for Lifebook and subscribe to their ongoing services. Obviously, they offer a lot, but I’ll take and share the info and insight that was offered in the webinar. The areas are: physical, intellectual, emotional, character, spiritual, romantic, familial, social, career, financial, quality of life, and life vision. The questions are: A) What are my deepest beliefs in my life that control my behavior? (Knowing who you are.) B) What exactly do I want in this area of my life? (Purpose.) C) Why do I want this? (Decision making framework.) D) If it’s my vision, what do I need to do to get it? (Do I have contradictory visions?)

I have found some overlap in these areas, but it helps to address each one. The overlap reminds us that life isn’t a bunch of compartmentalizations. Life is all of it. When I am finished with all the areas, I think I’ll go back to the questions and reread the answers, and add more as needed. I want to wrap it up soon, so that this lays the groundwork for next steps.

One of the biggest discoveries in this process has been answering the question: What are my deepest beliefs that control my behavior? That question really delves into the subconscious and what are the beliefs that I do not articulate, but are expressed in my actions. Things like not deserving happiness, or not living a full life have come up. Because I have been in a spiritual remodeling over the last couple of years, I have had to identify the past beliefs that determined my behavior for most of my life and express the new (and perhaps, opposing) beliefs and actions that I try to live now.

What I love about the (Lifebook) process is that there are some areas that I have ignored in the past (their whole point) when I did any kind of self-evaluating and goal setting. This is perhaps the most in-depth that I have ever gone in a goal setting exercise. I find it interesting that I watched the webinar over two months ago, and even shared my general notes (the 12 areas and the four questions) with a couple of people, but didn’t start until now. It felt like this was the week to finally really dig in. I also knew that if I didn’t dig in soon, I probably wouldn’t do it. This exercise has been on my list of things I want to do. I just decided to make room for it this week, even if that meant that not much else got done outside of work.

The big lesson is that we keep learning. Even after a time of goal setting, these areas will need to be revisited again. These questions will need to be asked and answered again. In the midst of this life, there is only the moment, the now. We can look to the past, and look at the future, but we only have the now.

Rilke reminds us, ” . . . Ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

We take stock, we ask the questions, we set goals, we evaluate, we wander aimlessly, we move with deliberation, we recalibrate, we live.

7 comments

  1. Fascinating, Kary. Don’t forget to also periodically reread your own writings and poetry, not recent but from many years back. It’s full of surprises sometimes, but also shows familiar patterns that ground you in your unique view of life. And your outlook towards the world around you.

  2. Patience is everything. Some lessons can only be discovered through stubborn experience-not through advice. I love to feel the warmth of a gentle spring breeze on my face. Material was well presented.

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