Radical Questions for Critical Times
by Sam Keen
Rumor has it that on leaving the Garden of Eden, Adam
said to Eve: "My dear, we are living in an age of transition."
Ordinarily, life proceeds ordinarily. We dwell securely within
the garden of the protective myths, values, and paradigms
of our society; our questions are about making a living,
purchasing the things we have been taught to desire, raising
our children, and keeping up with the neighbors. But times of
crisis challenge our comfortable assumptions about who we
are and force us to ask more radical questions. Carl Jung
reached such a point at midlife when he realized that he
didn't know what myth he had been living.
Since permanent change is here to stay and crises and
transitions are an inevitable part of the human condition, a wise
person will hone some of the skills necessary for thriving in
troubled times. Think of the crises every Adam and Eve must
negotiate as composed of three interlocking circles: identity
crises, love crises, social crises. It follows that the radical
questions we most need to ask in times of transition (when
our world is burning) are those addressed to the solitary self,
those concerning the intimate relationship between I and thou,
and those that have to do with the commonwealth within which
we live and move and have our being.
Herewith, a selection to get you started. (Please send others
that trouble, challenge, and inspire you to: Sam Keen,
16331 Norrbom Rd. Sonoma, California 95476)
CROSS EXAMINING THE SELF
What is happening to me?
What comes next for me?
What is the source and meaning of my
restlessness, dissatisfaction, longing, anxiety?
What do I really desire?
What have I not brought forth that is within me?
What have I contributed to life?
What are my gifts? My vocation?
What ought I to do? Who says?
What does my dream-self know that "I" don't?
What story, myth, values, authorities, institutions inform my life?
What is my ultimate concern?
How faithful am I to my best vision of myself?
At whose expense has my wealth, security,
and happiness been purchased?
QUESTIONS FOR I AND THOU
Whom do I love?
By whom am I loved?
Am I more loved or loving?
How intimate are we?
How close is close enough?
What are we doing together?
Do we help each other broaden and deepen the reach
of our caring, to become more compassionate?
What clandestine emotions fear, anger, resentment,
guilt, shame, sorrow, desire for revenge - keep us
from being authentic with each other?
When do our vows and promises become a prison from
which I and thou must escape to preserve the
integrity of our separate beings?
Can we renew our passion and commitment?
When is it time to say goodbye?
PROBING THE COMMONWEALTH
Who is included within the "we," the community,
the polis that encompasses and defines my being?
Who is my neighbor?
For whom, beyond the circle of my family, do I care?
Who are my enemies?
To what extremes would I go to defend my country?
Can I be just, loving, merciful, and be loyal to my
profession, my corporation, my country?
If we were to measure our success by Gross National
Happiness (the national standard of Bhutan) how would
our economic, political, educational, and religious
What would have to happen to convince sovereign nations
to wage peace rather than expending their wealth and
creativity in producing more deadly and genocidal weapons?
If you doubt that asking a new question is a royal
road to revolution, transformation, and renewal, consider
what happened when Descartes asked, "Of what may I be
certain?" or when Newton asked, "How is a falling apple
like a rising moon?" or when Marx asked, "Why were men
born free but are everywhere in chains?" or when Freud
asked, "What is the meaning of dreams?"
Your question is the quest you're on. No questions --
no journey. Timid questions -- timid trips. Radical questions
-- an expedition to the root of your being. Bon voyage.
Sam Keen, philosopher, teacher and author, has written
many books about being human, including Apology for
Wonder, Fire in the Belly, To Love and Be Loved, and
Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination.
The above article is reprinted here with the author's permission.
For information about Dr. Keen's workshops and his latest
thoughts about life, please visit his web site at www.samkeen.com.
In presenting Dr. Keen's essay to you, I would like to include the
following advice: Asking questions is a powerful human activity,
and because of the power of questions, they can sometimes be
experienced as rude or invasive by those who receive them. If you
decide to ask someone one or more of the deep questions
proposed in the above article, it would help your dialogue if you
would begin with the kind of conversational openers described in
Chapter 2 of the Workbook. In general, when you want to have
a conversation that will demand much effort from another person,
it helps to announce your intent to explore a particular topic and
invite the consent of your prospective conversation partner.
Sam Keen has generously consented to the inclusion of this article as a reading in the Seven Challenges Workbook. The text of this article is copyright 2000 by Sam Keen.