The Three Questions

FIRST: Happy birthday to my dear, treasured friend Corey, who is celebrating surrounded by loved ones in a place that means a lot to him and in a life space that is worth every moment of questioning and struggling and rising above. You’re the tops. Wishing you love and light for the next 365 and beyond!

At the end of my junior year of college, I found myself in a sun-drenched little chapel full of people whose shared mission of leadership, community, spirituality (faith), and service I had helped bring to life for them and for the 3,000+ first- and second-year students we worked with as Loyola Companions. The year was by far my most challenging and emotional in my personal journey, but I was proud to be part of a group that made me strive toward something bigger than myself because, collectively, we found joy in showing generosity, hospitality, curiosity, and enthusiasm to others. I had learned how to be the best form of myself DESPITE my struggles because I had come to know my place with them and (more importantly) their place with ME, in MY life, during MY self-seeking.

I was handed a children’s book, as were all of the others before and after me when our names were called by our inspiring and warm chaplain leaders. I remember Matt laying it in my hands and, as he did so, reminding all 40 of us that my 2 co-coordinators and I had based our orientation retreat in August on children’s books that demonstrated the 4 pillars of our work. The book he handed each of us as a gesture of thanks for our intentional time spent companioning others was based on a story by Leo Tolstoy and was titled The Three Questions.

The book is very much a coming-of-wisdom story in which a little boy realizes the three keys to a life of fulfillment by asking these very important questions:

  • What is the best time to do things? 
  • Who is the most important one? 
  • What is the right thing to do? 

I won’t ruin the punchlines for you (though if you want to ruin them for yourselves, the moral of the book is STILL the second half of my “About Me” on Facebook), but the book is a profound little tale I continue to revisit year after year and slump after slump to remind myself of the simple fact that it’s not about being the best; it’s about being the best FOR. It’s increasingly less about accomplishments and titles for me (though I’m getting a little tired of fighting the world on this one) and more about how often I did what mattered most to me and to those around me. And all that clarity-enducing reflection came from a children’s book! I know. I KNOW. I’m always forgetting just how simple the deep truths of the Universe are.

In a refreshing and challenging conversation with my friend Emily (C-Rod, you know I’m talking about the one I tried to make you be friends with at UD!) the other night, her words brought me back to this idea that the complicated things we bring around with us in the form of baggage all the days of our lives should be– and need to be– unpacked to become more simple, straightforward ideas and statements in order to help us best advocate for ourselves and be more authentic in our relationships with others. (She’s so brilliant I can’t even begin to go there for fear of never returning to my point.) I (and she) do(es) not mean to imply that all things are black and white and the easy things are the best things. It’s more this idea that we get inside our brains and work things into a tangled mess when, in the end, all we can do and should do is know where we sit and how we answer questions so that we can represent those things in our pursuits, our interactions, our dreams, our pilgrimages.

And then.

She used the phrase “the stories we tell ourselves,” which coincidentally happens to be the title of a chapter in the book I recently began re-reading (see last post for a taste of Miller’s delicious honey of a life-changer!). And I realized how the story I’m currently narrating for myself is WAY too complex to pack the same punch as The Three Questions and my task should be to bring it back to the essentials. Cool how pattern-driven and profound my life is because of the people I know, right?

AND THEN.

She asked me three questions. Y’ALL, I TRULY CANNOT MAKE THIS STUFF UP.

Her questions were about examining my relationships with others. We were specifically speaking about relationships I’ve invested lots of time and love and energy into, but I venture that it’s an interesting set of lenses through which we can look at a wide range of our relationships and interactions every day. Her questions, as (unethically?) ganked from a professor at UD:

  • What do you NEED from this interaction/relationship?
  • What do you WANT from this interaction/relationship?
  • What do you EXPECT from this interaction/relationship?

She actually drove it all home with a powerful fourth one: how do we differentiate between those three categories? Because we really should. It’ll not only help us reset our inner cardinal directions, but it’ll also help us discern the impact that we (and our wants/need/expectations) may have on others.

The easy part is laundry-listing what we know is resonating within us when we hear questions like this– to flush out those “stories we tell ourselves.” The more challenging part is finding the courage and conviction to tell our stories to others, abandoning all plot twists or hooks or flowery language. Just…plain and simple. When we are able to both recognize our straightforward answers and communicate them openly with others, we find ways to fit together and become a place of mutual belonging and codependency, similar to the feeling I had with my Companions crew in 2009.

I’m still hammering out some of my responses to those three questions from where I currently sit, but I have a feeling that they will be kept handy on my shelf to revisit on innumerable occasions, too.

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