It is an art to be able to ask questions. It is also a spiritual discipline. Sometimes, one question will lead to another because curiosity is generated and the desire to learn is ignited. We ask questions to gain permission and find out information, directions and clarification. We ask to encourage conversation, gain insight and receive help. One question can even lead to the building of community. But the first step toward all these things is to ask.
Asking is key to the learning process. When you are lost and need someone to point the way, the obvious thing to do is to ask someone who has been there. If you don’t understand a concept, a well-asked question encourages your teacher to respond in a way that connects with your experience. Curiosity is one of the things that fuels questions that enable learning. Curiosity is also one of the things that contributes to longevity. (Curiosity and Mortality in Aging Adults: A Five-Year Follow-Up of the Western Collaborative Group Study)
Why is it then that we have such a difficult time forming those questions? Particularly when it comes to requesting help?
Jesus’ Command to Ask
In the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks received, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7)
So how do we begin to consider the art of asking questions as a spiritual discipline? Perhaps the key comes in shifting the understanding of the purpose of the question from the object of the request to the request itself.
Don’t Ask for New Shoes
My aunt used to say that every time I left my Grandma Summer’s house, I had a new pair of shoes. My mother told me not to ask for things, particularly shoes, because my Grandma would oblige. I don’t remember asking for new shoes. But I probably also figured out how to leave hints instead of outright asking the question. Even though I didn’t ask directly, I would be scolded on the way home. Eventually I internalized that asking for things was not good.
Learning to Ask for Help
As the oldest child, I also had a sense that I should just figure things out on my own. I didn’t even have older cousins to whom I could look for guidance about growing up. To this day, I struggle to ask for anything, including personal help or directions. I learned how to find other self-sufficient ways to meet my needs. I learned how to figure things out as I went on my way. Stumbling on my own felt safer than asking for help.
My first lesson on the importance of asking for personal help from someone outside my family members happened in college. After a fall on an icy sidewalk, I ended up with a significant elbow injury. It locked in place and took weeks of physical therapy to regain use. Living alone, I could not fully dress myself and had to find someone at 7:30 each morning who could help me finish dressing. Not exactly a time with lots of co-eds out in the halls! As a young 20-something, trying to establish myself as an independent adult, I was humbled to realize that I really did need other people along the way.
The reality is, we are all relational beings. It was never the design of our creator that we should “go it alone.” God created us to be curious and to continue to grow. And therefore, the ability to ask for help and companionship is key to our being human. It is key to our continued growth, in spite of the obstacles and deficits that we face as we age.
Frank Needs a Walk
While standing in the museum’s queue while visiting our son in New York City, I noticed that he moved out of line and off to the side, his phone up to one ear. His other hand blocked the noise of the lobby from the other ear. Smiling, he returned a few minutes later, explaining that his neighbor Frank had called. “Frank needs a walk.”
We met Frank the previous day in their apartment building. Frank’s family moved into the apartment in the late 1930s. Nearing 80, he now approaches his first-floor, rent-controlled walk-up at a very slow pace. He uses the railing and walls to steady his gait.
On this particular cold, rainy Sunday, Frank called to ask Andrew to accompany him for a walk that afternoon. Frank knew better than to venture out by himself, particularly in the wet conditions.
In addition to asking for walking companionship, Frank also asks for help redeeming his McDonald’s coupons on the back of his receipt. He doesn’t have a computer and is grateful for the help of his millennial neighbor and the technology that enables him to get another free sandwich. He also asks for occasional help in the apartment and with other errands.
In turn, my son has discovered that Frank is a wealth of knowledge about the neighborhood and asks about restaurant reviews and recommendations. And he gets some interesting local history thrown in besides!
Asking As We Age
Particularly as we age, the gift of being able to ask a question of others for the help we need is necessary to being able to be safe and healthy. The well-asked question also leads to deeper relationships as community is formed one neighbor at a time.
The ability to ask is not always about requesting things that spoil us. Neither is it a sign of weakness because we need the help and can’t go it alone. The ability to ask is a spiritual discipline that helps to keep us humble. It actually connects us in ever deeper ways. The well-asked question is one that leads to the next question and the next. As long as we keep asking, we keep growing. And that is indeed what we were created to do!
What is your burning question this day? Where do you need to ask for assistance? Who would you like to invite to accompany you? What curious question about life lingers in your heart and is just waiting to be released into the universe? Ask. And it will be given. It may be an answer. Or, if you are lucky, it may just be another question.