Response to Thomas Merton I
No Man Is An Island
From the Prologue: “…anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions–because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”
Those who ask the right questions, especially in communities of faith, tend to be unpopular. The very act of asking questions, the hard questions, the “anxious” questions, tends to elicit offended expressions. I think, though I can’t be sure, that much of the offense comes from the deep-seated anxiety to which Merton alludes. Perhaps the more anxious a person is the more likely he or she is to be offended by questions that heighten anxiety.
But for some the lack of clear answers is a serious cause of perpetual angst. This state is often aggravated by other things: first among them is that the sort of questions that create this internal tension don’t seem to upset many other people. (That in itself creates another layer of nagging questions.) Also, this particular kind of personal anxiety stirs little supportive understanding from the general class of public conversant. Doubt is often viewed as a quirk of personality or is simply emphatically unwelcome. The angst-ridden questioner becomes a leper of sorts and must find ways to adjust to this fate. Trying to explain this painfully interrogative state to someone who just wants to sympathize is like walking underwater–lots of effort to little purpose.
But perhaps it is the precise role of some to be perpetually asking questions and just as perpetually to be angling for answers, like the fisherman on the sports channel who labors so hard for so long to land a beautiful fish, finally snags the coveted prize after a great struggle, admires the catch for all the viewers to see…then lets it slip back into the water, free and clear. Perhaps some are meant to believe and not-believe at the same time, if only to keep the rest of us honest.
The pale light of insufficient answers, as Merton indicates, is the curse, perhaps even the bane, of many whose still-born thinking ends in sweeping judgment and a loss of genuine human compassion. The once deeply spiritual, yearning drive within them shrivels into a need to belong to a group, an exclusive social club complete with support structures, financial incentives, high-grade coffee and child care.
The questioner finds him or herself herded, like so many others, into these huddled masses but never really belongs and may decide to cut and run at the first available opportunity, only to be caught in another herd or, perhaps, to go rogue, feeling like an outcast.
In the end the questioner has to evaluate whether or not the social structures of the huddled group are in themselves worthy not only of preservation but of tolerant, even loving, support for the good they awkwardly and imperfectly manage to spread. Sometimes it’s like watching a monster tractor trundle along with a hand-hoe attached at the back rather than a genuine rig. But perhaps it’s not always as much about the insufficient answers as it is about being with real people in a real world. Sometimes the trade-off creates an almost intolerable strain, but it does not absolutely require the suspension of the one thing that must not be suspended under any circumstances….
Someone still has to ask the unanswerable questions.