Yesterday, my aunt came over to visit and began talking about a seminar she and her husband attended. It was a psychology seminar, focused on self-awareness and understanding one’s own motives and purpose. She explained to us one of the activities, which she says still affects her life today: finding your unanswerable question.
An unanswerable question, she told us, is the question which guides your actions and life decisions. It embodies the way we view our own purpose in life, and how we define success and failure. These questions often lie in childhood psychology, built over years of conditioning, insecurity, and relationships. Her unanswerable question is “Am I good enough?” in reference to her always competing with her three older brothers in childhood, tirelessly trying to get some sort of recognition from my grandparents.
The night after she explained, I tried to find my own unanswerable question. Perhaps I’m more acutely aware of myself and my motives than others, but I found the exercise quite easy. I believe we all know our unanswerable question deep down, seeing as we act on them, but we don’t always acknowledge them consciously.
I believe mine to be: “Am I living up to my full potential?”. As a child, I was consistently told that I am talented and am on track to do amazing, world-changing things with my life. My mother encouraged me to use all my gifts as an adult, telling me it was my duty to grow up and use my full potential to help the planet.
So I grew up fearing failure, fearing that I wouldn’t use up all of my potential in life. That’s why I often strive today to do everything I can, stretching myself too thin. I need to be the best in most situations or I feel like I’m failing to use my full potential. I often embark on projects, books, and artistic ventures that I abandon, trying to use up all of my potetial as soon as I can.
Another manifestation is that I feel the need to show the world my goodness, a tendency to justify, so as not to waste my inherent gift of kindness and my inherent ability to change the lives of others. I am all too aware of my mortality, and try everyday to use all of my potential in case my time on this planet is short. To me, time used unwisely and unproductively is time wasted. My greatest fear is dying before I can surely say I have lived up to my potential and used it to change the world.
I knew these things about myself, but knowing where they all stem from has helped me to understand the way I think, feel, and act. My unanswerable question is completely personal, and so is yours. I encourage you to do some soul-searching, so to speak, for your own question. I’ve so far provided two examples, but I will give a more general list of requirements for a question now. Your unanswerable question must be somewhat general, but specific to you. It doesn’t have to encapsulate all your views and actions, but it often dictates the way you act as a default in everyday life.
For example, if yours was “Am I smart enough?” you might try to surround yourself with smart people, fear that people are talking down to you, force yourself to read difficult material, and have a lack of respect for less intelligent people. Another example, “Am I like my mother?” might be the question of someone who despised their mother in childhood and has it set within them not to follow her example. The question usually focuses on a childhood and adolescent theme.
The possibilities are truly endless, dependent on your own personal past. Finding my unanswerable question has allowed me to reflect on my actions in a new light, seeing how they line up with my inner value of fulfilling my full potential.
It’s also allowed me to see how the way I view the world and act is different from that of other people. Before, I thought everyone was looking to achieve their full potential at the end of the day- I never considered otherwise. Now I know that it’s a specific value, and I no longer judge people based on their ability to fulfil this value. It’s not because they are unmotivated or lazy or too tired; it’s because their unanswerable question is different from mine.
More recently, I’ve been attempting to figure out the unanswerable questions of others, in order to understand why they act the way they do and how to treat them better according to their needs.
The ways in which unanswerable questions affect our lives are limitless, and get to the crux of our subconscious decision making. Understanding your own question is central to understanding yourself; and understanding yourself is the key to living a meaningful life that you control.