if you move carefully
through the forest,
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
to stop what you
while you do it,
that can make
that have patiently
waited for you,
that have no right
to go away.
~ Sometimes, by David Whyte
Before The School of Life question card packs grew in number and Esther Perel launched her version, before We’re Not Really Strangers and countless other imitations - there was The Proust Questionnaire.
Though not devised by Proust himself, the infamous French essayist and novelist, the questionnaire was popularised across dining tables and parlours thanks to him. Proust believed that in answering these questions, individuals would reveal their “true nature” - delving into insights about who they really are.
The idea of asking, being asked and responding to interesting questions is a curious thing to explore. Anyone who has spent time with a young child, just learning how to think and formulate questions about the most random things they encounter, will know that relentless questioning can be a burden.
Spending time with my two nieces of such age recently led me to embrace the ‘That’s a good question - I don’t know the answer - shall we find out together’-isms and to find pleasure once more in exploring the answers. Ask such children questions in return, and you’ll see a mind whirring with creative juices to concoct some often scarily logical, if inaccurate, response.
Somewhere along the way, we stop carving out allowances for these creative replies. Working in schools, I observed this regularly - children fearful of raising their hands or answering a question with anything more than the bare minimum. We teach the fear of failure too early and unconsciously allow it to replace the joy of exploring our own minds, regardless of accuracy.
The ‘art’ of asking good questions has been commodified across a range of professions; from doctors and health professionals to police, insurance claims handlers to business consultants. You only need Google ‘asking good questions’ to have a range of content fodder from the likes of Forbes and HBR pop up in the top results.
But there’s another layer to asking good questions that goes deeper than this.
David Whyte is often referred to in this regard, having written and spoken in-depth on his ‘questions that have no right to go away’. These are the questions that:
“Have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation. They almost always have something to do with how we might be more generous, more courageous, more present, more dedicated, and they also have something to do with timing: when we might step through the doorway into something bigger, better—both beyond ourselves and yet more of ourselves at the same time.”
When you dive into the art of asking good questions, you see the path that led to Whyte’s thinking, all the way back to Socrates (as someone I am close to regularly reminds me - there are no new ideas, only new ways of telling (or selling!) them).
The Socratic Method is a conversational, inquiry-based method of shared dialogue between teacher and students. The teacher leads by posing thought-provoking questions, and students actively engage by asking questions of their own. You can see this depicted in any TV show or movie where a university professor is giving a tutorial to a small group of unruly yet brilliant minds.
Susan Young talks about Socrates' method of question and communication in her book The Art of Connection, though she focuses more on using this as a method for creating positive impressions and impact over philosophical, individualised musings:
“Socrates would teach his pupils by asking them intelligent and probing questions. By using their critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities, they could discover the answers for themselves and retain their lessons longer. By using this same approach, there is no telling how much you might teach and solve for another person, all the while creating a memorable encounter.”
In her stance, Young removes the idea of teacher-student dialogue, encouraging us all to interchangeably move between the two roles when it comes to having memorable conversations.
This is also something Whyte refers to in his own ways - I can’t recall any piece of his work where I’ve seen him talk about Socrates when he’s discussing his ideas of asking questions, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t. When he discusses ‘beautiful questions’ he does talk in detail about the capacity to have enlightening conversations that move all participants.
So there are two distinct aspects here; the questions we ask others and the questions we ask ourselves.
I like to make this distinction because it is important. It asks us to explore the nuances of the why behind we want to be better at asking questions. Is it because we want better connections, or do we want people to remember/like us? Are we on a journey of self-inquiry or external inquiry?
If better connections, is it in service of giving to others or having others give to us? We cannot escape the confines of the heavily individualised western cultural and social constructs we live within, so it’s definitely worth untangling your thoughts around this.
There are countless philosophers, creatives and writers who talk about questions as a skill, something to rehearse and learn, but much like Whyte, I believe that questions form a significant part of our innate nature as humans (again, spend time with a young child and you’ll know).
Our shared histories are built on questions - whether we realise it or not. Going back to the unconscious reality of questioning our lives that Whyte points to is a curious thing to consider. Bringing this aspect of living into our consciousness can reveal significant insights about where we’ve been, where we’re going - and if that’s the right direction we want to head in.
The trick is how we make space for the questions of our lives that can lead us to become who we might be if we dare to search for answers. It’s also about knowing when to focus on the questions and when to focus on the answers.
Whyte points to questions opening doorways, but there has to be a moment when we step through and live in the answers without questions, at least for a time. We can’t spend our lives forever in the quest for so-called good questions. We can’t only live along the lines of a question mark, it’ll drive you mad.
It’s something I know too well. In the period between meeting my (now) husband for the first time and us establishing what we would become, I lived inside a question mark.
We were long distance, and anyone with a logical mind will tell you - long distance doesn’t work. And when it does work, you can find a lot of questions to ask yourself about why this is working so well: Am I not really invested? Are they not really invested? Am I hiding in long distance because I’m devoid of the capacity to have a successful relationship in person? How long will we be long distance for? Am I ready to be a ‘regular’ couple? What are they thinking?
These are just a few of the cognitive offshoots amongst many (many) others.
It takes a lot of work and courage to ask the questions that have no right to go away of another person when you live in opposite time zones, and your heart is on the line. Unravelling that question mark and turning it into a necessary ellipsis (to be continued!) was not easy, but it was oh-my-gosh-so-incredibly worthwhile (!).
I have no doubt that had I continued to keep the question mark in place instead of leaning into the new reality of my life (living on the opposite side of the world with a man I had in reality only ever spent less than ten days in the physical presence of), we would not be where we are today.
There are always questions to ask of ourselves and others, perhaps especially in matters of the heart, but in general too. It is not always about looking for the next big question or staying stuck on the same question.
Sometimes it is about living in the joy of the answer when it makes the most sense, for as long as it makes sense.
So yes, we should all pursue beautiful questions, but we can also be mindful of our why. And please, please, don’t forget to live the answers as much as the questions themselves.
The Proust Questionnaire
Because nobody asked (and no one is ever likely to), I decided to have a go at answering The Proust Questionnaire myself.
If you’ve ever responded to a similar ‘getting to know you’ type questionnaire or used TSOLs question packs, the questions will likely feel quite familiar to you.
If you haven’t, it’s a fun place to start exploring the concept.
1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Oh gosh, I have so many ideas - but I like to live in the reality of happiness. In recent years, my husband and I have been taking ourselves away to a little shack on Tasmania’s east coast for R&R retreats with our dogs.
There’s little to no reception, a beautiful lagoon and miles of empty beaches a five-minute walk away. Waking up there, going for a swim and returning to fresh coffee and eggs on toast with him is pure joy.
The ease of knowing we have nowhere to be and everything we need is right with us is wonderful. Whenever life begins to feel a little stretched, we just book another weekend there.
As I settle more into myself, I’m finding (as most people do) that happiness isn’t about things or trips, nor is it some ‘end goal’ we strive for. It’s about being able to close the day without worries, regrets or questions about whether I’ve been a ‘good enough’ person. Happiness is drifting to sleep with ease, night after night, content with who I am, who I am being, and that whatever tomorrow brings, I have everything I need to face it.
2. What is your greatest fear?
Dying before I’ve had a chance to achieve some of my loftier life goals (and missing out on growing old with my loved ones).
And slugs. Especially a slug touching my skin. I absolutely cannot even bear the thought of it.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My short temper. I’m working on it.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Rudeness. And a general lack of self-awareness. Oh, I’ll throw narcissism in there too.
5. Which living person do you most admire?
I can’t think of one person that I most admire to name, but in general, people who are able to live with a sense of purpose without having to turn it into a capitalist hustle.
I admire people who manage to hold a sense of self in this chaotic world and find nourishment from living life on their own terms.
And I admire people who maintain curiosity about everything and everyone in that subtle authentic way. It’s actually not an easy thing to do. I’ve met a handful who master this.
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
Financially, I would have to say my skincare routines. Yes, I like to spend money on my skin. I am in an intense period of rallying against the notion that academic intellectuals cannot also be lavish skincare lovers.
I am very over the misogynism that women pit each other against, and this is one such area of patriarchal BS that has drip-fed into our mindset about ‘who’ gets to invest in skincare, beauty, or fashion and who doesn’t. I can do a PhD AND have an eight-step nighttime skincare routine. One of these things doesn't negate the other.
Life-wise, I would have to say resting without feeling guilty. It’s taken a lot to reach this mindset after years of being an overachiever, and it’s something that still requires conscious cultivation.
7. What is your current state of mind?
I’m in a ‘caretaker’ state of mind at the moment. In life, we face years that don’t offer us adventures or challenges - they’re just years that we need to take a step back on and take care of things.
My career is steady but unambitious as I strike a balance between studying, freelancing and working. I don’t have the time or energy to take risks and divert life down a new path. Travelling isn’t a financial option for me as me and my husband prioritise other financial goals.
So it will be a quiet year - a caretaker year. And it’s this sense of taking care of things really well that I’m trying to cultivate as my overall mindset. Future me will thank me for it.
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Interesting. If we take virtues by the traditional meaning and the traditional traits (courage, patience, honesty, prudence etc), then I’m not sure as I don’t think these things can ever be overrated.
I think in a social media-driven world, there are certain things that get misconstrued as virtues (like spirituality), and then the actions that people attach to these ideas become signals of their virtue. For example, mediation. I am not against meditation. I am against people who perpetuate the idea that meditating is a spiritual act (it’s not) OR the aesthetic of what ‘proper meditation’ looks like (sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, wearing linen .. you get the idea).
This is definitely overrated.
9. On what occasion do you lie?
Usually, about the aforementioned price tag of some of my skincare products .. my husband need not know.
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I honestly do not have the energy to waste on disliking any aspect of my appearance. Although, I did recently cut all my hair off and wish I hadn’t. It was a whim, and the short hair looks good but long hair looks better on me.
(That said, my hair is now extremely healthy and bouncy, so a fresh start has also done it the world of good. Always something positive to be found.)
11. Which living person do you most despise?
Any person in a position of power and financial security who chooses greed and nepotism over the communities they were elected to support and protect.
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Hmm, I can’t pinpoint a quality that I would say I like the most in a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ - I like people who are curious, self-aware, and emotionally aware.
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I say ‘fuck’ too much.
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My husband. Which reads like an obvious and dull answer. The word ‘husband’ reduces just what a wild, loving adventure being with this man has - and continues - to be.
16. When and where were you happiest?
When I look back on my life, I find that even the times I thought I was my most unhappiness are threaded through with bright moments of joy - and simply preparing me for the next great thing that was coming my way.
So, in every moment, everywhere, I have been my happiest. For my next big trick, I would like to be able to ground myself in that sense of happiness as it happens, not when I’m looking back on it in the years ahead.
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
I love to sing, and I don’t have a terrible voice, but I would love to have a stronger singing voice.
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Um, as above! Recognise happiness as it happens! Be more appreciative of the joy in my life as it happens! Express my appreciation of others more as it needs to be said!
I spend a lot of time living in my head, getting on with my own world of things, and I need to be more expressive at times with those around me, who have told me they often think I’m too busy to call/ask me out for coffee/request my attention.
I would make a more confident effort to be friendlier. Those who know me know what I mean by that!
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Following my heart and redefining my life as I see fit based on the lessons I learn about myself year after year.
Over and over and over.
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Perhaps a tree? But not in a place where I might be cut down and turned into a table. In a place where I can grow for 100 years and be a home for a critter or two or three, and simply watch the world go by.
21. Where would you most like to live?
Impossible question! I want to live everywhere new, where I live now, and all the places I have already lived.
22. What is your most treasured possession?
My dogs - although it’s not quite right to refer to them as ‘possessions’. They definitely own me. It’s their world - they’re just allowing me to live in it with them.
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
I will say heartbreak as that’s the lowest depth of misery I have experienced, but I’m conscious there are deeper depths.
And now, in saying that, every heartbreak I’ve experienced only unlocked the door to a more beautiful life, so there’s always that.
I think any form of grief - the loss of imagined futures that we were once hopeful for - is an unbearable misery I wouldn’t wish anyone to stay stuck in.
24. What is your favourite occupation?
Writing. I am very lucky I get to call it my day job.
And sleeping. I love a good nap.
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
I would like to say my generosity, but I fear it may be my excitability to share my ideas and ask about yours. I’m self-conscious about how this can be overbearing at times.
26. What do you most value in your friends?
My longest-suffering friend Louise and I were talking about this today as it happens. We live on opposite sides of the earth, and we are both desperately missing having that one friend who you can just be with.
Fully relaxed, unafraid if you say the ‘wrong’ thing (because they know you and your intent and will forgive you or help correct you in a charming way), sitting around doing nothing, laughing at everything and nothing, arguing about everything and nothing.
I value ease in friendships the most because it is so hard to find and all too easy to miss.
27. Who are your favourite writers?
Gosh, there are so many to list: Kae Tempest, Anita Brookner, Etel Adnan, Joan Didion, Elena Ferrante, Maggie Nelson, Max Porter, Han Kang, Amy Witting, Rachel Cusk, Josef Albers, Siri Hustvedt, Tara June Winch, John Berger, Raymond Carver, John O’Donohue, Mariana Enríquez, Albert Camus, Deborah Levy, Jenny Offil, Vivian Gornick, Mary Oliver, Samanta Schweblin, Yūko Tsushima, Susan Sontag, Bae Shuh …
I can go on (and on and on ).
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
Lyra Belacqua will remain one of my all-time heroes of fiction. I read His Dark Materials when I was about the same age as Lyra, and it cracked open such a huge world for me. She was the first really empowered young female protagonist I’d read who was interested in so much more than sleepovers and boys and first kisses.
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I absolutely have no clue. I have no answer for this one.
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
Friends living with mental health conditions, and the bravery I see them take to live each day.
My local barista who is a wonderful fountain of coffee knowledge and a real connoisseur of creating coffee experiences, but still humbly lets me get away with ordering my rather boring order when I visit. He is a real hero.
31. What are your favourite names?
When I say these are my favourite names, please know I mean them in terms of naming the next dogs I will own and not necessarily people: Millicent, Edith, Wolfgang, Juniper, and Otto.
32. What is it that you most dislike?
Honestly, this list is long. I can be a very particular person, and I am working on becoming looser with the terms ‘dislike’ and ‘like’ to open myself up to more opportunities and ideas.
33. What is your greatest regret?
I don’t believe in regrets. There are certain things I wished I had done the moment I knew I wanted to do them (and not waited so long), but love and learning come with the waiting. I’m doing them now, and that’s what counts.
34. How would you like to die?
Quietly. And preferably before those I love most so I don’t have to suffer a world without them. My husband and I have an agreement that he is not allowed to die before me.
35. What is your motto?
I actually have a few. I’ve always liked “know something about everything and everything about something” as it’s a sweet reminder to stay curious about anything that comes our way.
“I am walking in the general direction of things” - a quote from Mary Rueffle is also a favourite to remind me to slow down and enjoy the journey as much as the outcome.
And “She didn’t do it, because she didn’t do it”, which is an artwork I have above my desk by James Hale, and I love it because it’s that counter to hustle culture and not doing things simply because we don’t want to. We can say no, and that’s A.O.K.