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Speeches & Media

Questions and Answers

Curiosity about ourselves and our world carries us through life

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2018

I started thinking about the act of questioning this past March when I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This novel about an unconventional African American woman named Janie Crawford was first published in 1937 during the Great Depression; however, it didn’t attract a wide audience until 1975, when Alice Walker published an article in Ms. magazine about Walker’s search to find Hurston’s unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida. We owe the resurrection of this novel, considered an integral part of the canon of American literature, to Walker. 

The novel charts Janie’s development through three relationships as she struggles for a sense of self not available to African American women at the time, not even to independent souls like Janie who were willing to make bold, unexpected choices. Of the many memorable lines from this masterpiece, here is one that has stayed with me: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Hurston goes on to write, “Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?” 

So much of living consists of asking questions and searching for answers. As soon as children begin to talk, they ask questions: Why? What happened? How come? Why not? They are eager to learn, and questions are a powerful tool for knowing. Like adults, children ask questions to address gaps and ambiguities in their knowledge. 

Children ask many more questions than adults because there is so much they need to learn about the world. Recently, my 3-year-old granddaughter wanted to know, Why the stars stay up in the sky? Why, indeed? And when any of us, adult or child, finds an answer, it’s a powerful moment. We are changed forever as a result of our newly acquired knowledge. Of all the species on this glorious planet, only humans ask questions. An evolutionary biologist might argue that the act of questioning is a selected trait. Those who asked questions found answers, increasing their probability of survival. Scholars love to speculate about the answers to questions. After all, scholars begin their work with a hypothesis, which is nothing more than a good question worth studying. We work at the edge of knowledge—and happily so; discovery is an exciting enterprise.

In my own work, I have explored hypotheses about the role of experience in development and questions about the effects of child care and early childhood interventions. Questions have provided the rationale and motivation for my work. I suspect the same is true for other faculty members. Each discipline has its methods, its rules for revelation, its routes to answers. Few things match the thrill of having research findings to share with other scholars.

Still, the questions Hurston’s Janie poses about cosmic loneliness differ from those asked by children and scientists in building a knowledge base. In the novel, Janie questions the nature of the human condition, especially as experienced through relationships with friends, neighbors, lovers—and with God.

The questions we all return to, again and again, concern the essence of existence. Around age 11 or 12, we have the cognitive ability for internal hypothesis-testing; meaning we begin to consider and test bigger, more complex questions. Can you remember the first time you asked yourself if there is a God or what happens when you die? You were probably 11 or 12. This is also when you begin to ask questions about life itself. What is a life well lived? How do you find purpose in life? How do you know the ethical thing to do? 

Do these questions have answers? That, in itself, is a good question. I have given this a great deal of thought in my 63 years. Despite the uncertainties, the mysteries and the wonders of life, it is clear to me that we are meaning- makers by design. In other words, each of us constructs a notion of reality as we make sense of the world. This is a common enough idea in sociology and communication theory. Yet it is hardly surprising that thinking about deeply held beliefs as social constructions might make us all feel a bit untethered from time to time.

Recently, over dinner, I shared Hurston’s quote with a friend as we discussed the fact that there are indeed phases of life when the answers escape us. My friend recalled fragments of a quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. We took out our cellphones, Googled the lines and read these words together: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. 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.” 

I think Zora Neale Hurston might agree with Rilke. She ends her novel with Janie delineating two tasks that each of us must do alone: to go to God and to find out about living for ourselves. 

At its core, Hurston’s novel calls us to find out about living for ourselves. What a remarkable opportunity and privilege. Perhaps being unsatisfied with answers motivates change in a way that being satisfied never could. When you think about it, the status quo is actually rather boring. Good questions, on the other hand, never are. Questions about who we are and why we are here, about the discoveries we are meant to make and the work we are meant to do; questions about a life well lived. And, of course, questions about why the stars stay up in the sky. 

With each new phase of life, we should love the questions, each and every one. I suspect Hurston is right that some years will provide the answers— if we are patient enough. 

Adapted from President McCartney’s Ivy Day address on May 19, 2018.

Sources: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston, 1937; Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet, M. D. Herter translation, 1962