Express Yourself

How ‘One True Question’ Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose

Your personal question will illuminate what’s most important to you

Marjorie Hass
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readJun 24, 2020

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Beautiful rainbow flare in the sunset sky with bright light.
Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

I have a friend, the poet, scholar, and leader Laurie Patton, who asks her students “What is your one true question?” She intends, I think, to help them find the place of their deepest curiosity. The question that comes up for them over and over again and that can never reach a definitive answering spot. The one that is endlessly fascinating.

It might be “Am I loved?” or “What are the guiding laws of nature?” or “Who am I?” or “What does G-d want from me?” It might be “How shall I live?” or “To whom do I owe allegiance?” or “What does it mean to be Jewish/a woman/the child of a coal miner/Deaf?” or even “How do I fill the emptiness of my being?” It might be the question Ta-Nehisi Coates asks in Between the World and Me: “How do I live free in this Black body?” Or the question I heard over and over as a child: “Is it morally permissible to feel joy after the Holocaust?”

When we look inward to discover our own question, we are looking for a core dissatisfaction that animates our thinking and that drives us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Alain Badiou, in the preface to After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux, tells us that philosophy itself grows from the relentless pursuit of a single question — one that “arises at the intersection of thought and life at a given moment in the philosopher’s youth.” That early puzzle reinvents itself again and again in new guises.

The matter of this deep question is intensely personal. As you read these words, you may know instantly the question that is yours. You see it at work in your life and are familiar with its pull. Others of you may struggle to find your question. You may even wonder if you really have one. I think you do — but it may take some time to bring it into conscious awareness. You will need to quiet your mind and let the quest for the question take root for a bit. You will need to mull it over and maybe talk it over with someone who loves you and knows you well.

When I first heard Laurie’s invitation to find my question, I immediately saw its outlines, but its details needed time to come into focus…

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Marjorie Hass
Human Parts

Marjorie Hass is president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, DC. She served as president of Rhodes College and Austin College.