It’s the most vulnerable place in the world, asking. ‘Would you go out with me?’ ‘Can you forgive me?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can I help you?’ You risk a ‘no’, and that is terrifying. It implies that you haven’t heard or been heard well enough, that you need something that another isn’t willing to give, that you’re imposing or being demanding. A failed question denies so much more than the immediate request – it denies the depth of understanding and acceptance in a relationship. It’s hard to ask.
It’s worthwhile, of course – and people are very pro asking. Community and connection are essential in the Jewish faith, asking God even more so. ‘If the answer is no,’ we reason, ‘at least we tried.’ If we don’t ask, we’ll never get a yes.’ Asking opens the door to communication, to relationship, to that connection and intimacy that many of us desire, some of us fear, and all of us need for growth. All we can do is use our words and strive to cope with the answers.
Sometimes, the ‘no’ is just too bitter, though. When the answer is ‘no’ to questions of love, of attention, of self-worth – then it’s not easy to take. So, we go it alone. We don’t ask for help, thus admitting no weakness. We don’t ask for attention, thus admitting no desire. We work out our own answers, creating meaning for ourselves. It may be a cold, lonely place to be, but at least there’s no risk of rejection. In so many ways, not asking is safer.
So, too, is not answering. Answering is also fraught, after all. Who wants to destroy someone else’s world? That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone! On the other hand, committing to something one doesn’t want to do just to make someone else happy? Well, that leads to dysfunction and abuse, quicker than one would have thought possible. Here, it’s harder. How can one not answer? The question has been asked, hanging in the air like a sad little half-filled balloon. Will it be filled and fly away? Will it flop limply to the ground, the air having been let out of it in a quiet woosh? One has to say something.
People do a lot of tricky things to avoid answering questions. They say, ‘ask me later, I’m busy’ or ‘that’s a possibility’. They turn the question back on itself, with a ‘well, what do you think.’ They give a vague could fit anything answer, along the ‘that sounds good in principle but I’m not sure…’ or ‘let’s do that…when we next have time.’ These answers get rid of the question, yes. They don’t do much to improve communication, though. Really, best to go back to not asking the question.
Of course, no question = no communication, and one is stuck in a loop which is difficult to work with. I don’t have a way out of the loop, really. There was a time when I knew the answer to this question at least, and could say, ‘ask!’ Ask though it’s hard and embarrassing and leaves you crying because growing love is all there is, and the most important thing and so ask. Now, I’m less sure. The asking can so easily become demanding, begging, nagging, or whining – all of which are very unappealing. Maybe it’s better to make the space, and stay safe.
Now, I have fewer answers and fewer questions. I’ve become more quiet. Maybe that’s part of growing older. I still ask, just more rarely. I hope it means that the questions I do ask are more worthwhile. It’s that balance that’s the real challenge. How to ask the right questions, with courage and strength and even with joy, how to answer the questions clearly and accurately even when the answers break expectations, and how to be OK with any answer given? How to take the space when needed and not ask when asking would result in pain and unnecessary work for others? Today, I acknowledge the need for distance, for quiet silences, for spaces without words. For everything there is a time, it says in Ecclesiastes. There is a time for asking and a time for staying quiet. Today, I accept and honour those who chose not to ask.