Questions, these days, are almost the current that powers our daily lives. Sometimes the world seems to offer more questions than answers. Who hasn’t spent a day asking themselves, What is up with this crazy weather? Why is there another school shooting? Is the pandemic really over? What should I have for lunch? Is that feeling in my chest anxiety or my heart? I would love to see a survey on the number of questions we Americans live with these days, compared to ten years ago—or two.
Every question, of course, begs an answer, even the ones that seem unanswerable. As a clinical psychologist and poet, I think that both therapy and poetry share a foundation of focus on the mystery of life. So much of our existence circles around uncertainties—what Rainer Maria Rilke referred to as the “unsolved” in the heart. John Keats framed the mysteries as “negative capability,” a cosmos of unpredictability and doubt that somehow takes one to beauty, if not truth. We all search for anchors; strongholds against the storm; tethers that link to life’s larger meaning.
As a psychologist, I spend many hours of my life sitting in therapy with others, listening to and discussing intimate details of their days. Pondering specifics—the way someone’s mouth turned when he heard the news. How bright the light was in the bar when she broke up with her. The length and design of cuts on a child’s inner thigh. The brusqueness of the ER doctor. The ambiguous text. The confusing silence.
We all search for anchors; strongholds against the storm; tethers that link to life’s larger meaning.
As a poet I spend many hours devoted to what I think of as a universal creative force, a miraculous energy that animates everything and manifests meaning, for me, in the form of words. Reflecting, reading, writing, editing, erasing, questioning, traveling the unknown terrain. Living with the ambiguous text. The confusing silence.
There is so much that we just don’t know. Why are we here? How do we feel things so deeply? Believe with such conviction? Ignore truths or disregard potential? Why do we hurt one another? How do we both create and destroy? Why why, why do we die?
Rilke implored us both to love and to live with—to live—the questions: “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Questions are a therapist’s lifeblood. We are skilled at converting statements into inquiries, creating 50-minute sessions of living the questions. As though turning a person’s world on its head will deliver clarity, or some kind of truth, or a refinement, a swerve in the road that yields meaning. Maybe forbearance. Maybe happiness.
Similarly, questions lie at the heart of poems for both writer and reader. Most poets wrestle with a poem’s development through inquiry about the granular work at hand: What kind of line breaks does this poem ask for? Stanzas? What metrics do I want to employ? How might I alter my syntax for greater meaning? My diction? And larger questions loom: Where is this poem going? Is the work complete? What is the meaning of it all?
The reader wrestles with queries related to craft and substance. Is this a sonnet? Why in third person? What’s up with the metaphors? Which myth is this? Connections to poetic themes and meaning occur through associations, memories, even fantasies we encounter through a poem. Where do we find ourselves wandering, in our minds and hearts?
Seamus Heaney wrote in the poem “Digging”:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Most of us, in some manner, dig into our lives with words. We want clarity, we want understanding. Words, as Adrienne Rich said, are maps. The process of discovery, in both therapy and poetry, bears the weight of questions: What will I find? Can I live with what is there? We therapists reside in contemplation and mindful presence with people who are searching. Who dig.
Therapists often are trained to ask a new client, “What brings you into therapy?” which infers a “precipitating event.” Most people can identify a trigger to their seeking treatment, which may prove useful to the work ahead. Yet a question resides behind the question of “What brings you?” which speaks to the largesse of human nature. What brings anyone to a place of questioning, of contemplation, of readiness for change? Something within impels us toward a search for meaning. A vital force in humanity asks us to seek.
The process of discovery, in both therapy and poetry, bears the weight of questions.
T.S. Eliot’s famous lines from “Little Gidding” have given solace to many:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Our strivings, whether we reside in poetry or therapy, have purpose, even when we feel lost. Wandering with uncertainty—holding our questions—with persistence, we may reach a newness of vision, of understanding. The earth spins with mystery, tilts with chaos: so much we can’t do anything about. Therapy gestures toward control, what Robert Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion.”
And yet therapy, like poetry, requires us to embrace mystery, to hold the weight of questions which may never have answers. In his poem “To the Night,” Frank Bidart offers the eloquent refrain, “There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,” as though we must go deeper into the darkness, the mystery of this life, to approximate meaning. Not to fear our suffering but to explore it, to give it presence, and perhaps in this way create the space to release it.
Most Americans find comfort and relief in productivity, activity, consumption, entertainment: not in simply being with themselves. Therapy asks us to stay, for a moment, with who we are. Poetry, similarly, requests us to stay. To be with the poem, and, therefore, with who we are in relation to the poem. To “be with,” as C.D. Wright urged. Poetry, like therapy, is an introspective endeavor that is rarely less than challenging. Yet for many it is a kind of balm. A comfort.
We find ourselves in a time of history rife with upheaval and mystery. Octavio Paz warned:
We fall with the centuries, the years, the minutes.
Is time only a falling, only a wall?
Perhaps this is not a time to hide in our fragility, but to step forward in it. Healing, like therapy, contains a larger vision, an intention to seek awareness and meaning beyond what is immediate.
Therapy ostensibly serves the purpose of resolution, of finding answers to life problems. Yet I think therapy, at its best, offers a kind of bewilderment that enables a person to feel most alive, most connected to their core, most capable. Life is rich with mystery; therapy, like poetry, expresses the mystery as much as it tries to solve it. In this way, living the questions, we come closer to the meaning we seek—perhaps a kind of peace.
Floriography Child by Lisa C. Krueger is available from Red Hen Press.