How ‘One True Question’ Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose
Your personal question will illuminate what’s most important to you
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. Making my question visible to myself required looking backward at the intersection point of my academic work, my childhood worries and hopes, and my psychological and ethical preoccupations. I saw that over and over again I was drawn to language and driven to understand its ability to both create and occlude meaning. My own true question has to do with the way that language works — its connection to thought, healing, knowing, intimacy, revelation, shame, and self-understanding. Its ability to reveal and to hide. My one true question is this: What is the power and limit of language?
I cry whenever language fails to meet the challenge of the beauty, horror, or intensity of what we see.
The relentlessness of this question has been with me for as long as I can remember. It was there in the imaginary made-up languages and words of my childhood play. And there again as I struggled to understand the mystery of my parents’ work as psychoanalysts and their mastery of the “talking cure.” An early and voracious reader, I nonetheless declined to major in English opting instead for philosophy where I could focus on language and meaning as objects in themselves abstracted from specific narratives or contexts.
My children know how deeply I believe that putting things into words is hard but valuable work. They know that I lose sleep wondering how our nonlinguistic dog understands her world. And they have seen firsthand that the marriage I made with their father is one long conversation. They know I cry whenever language fails to meet the challenge of the beauty, horror, or intensity of what we see.
My religious experiences, too, have always been grounded in this ultimate question as I bracketed the question of G-d’s existence in favor of what seemed to me the more interesting question of G-d’s language. To me, the holiest space—the space where G-d greets us — is at the border of words and wordlessness. In analysis I discovered the ways my sadness and fear also lay at this border. I found emotional healing as I learned how to mourn and recuperate what was lost when I traded the intensity of prelinguistic infantile experience for the mastery that comes with language use.
In my current professional work, I use words to lead change and to make community, marveling always at language’s power and limits. In my political and philanthropic commitments, I focus on expanding the circle of those whose voices matter and who have the power to create and share meanings.
In every aspect of my life — my work, my deepest relationships, my soul — I encounter my question: What is the power and limit of language? And I see how I have followed the threads of that question over and over again.
What is that question that animates your soul?
Badiou describes the intensity of an individual’s question as a “wound” or a “thorn” in her very experience of existence. There is likely a truth here for many of us. The ordinary traumas — of loss, grief, anger, and desire that are inherent in human development — leave each of us with our own idiom of yearning. And many among us live through traumas of a more significant and destabilizing kind. But the negative language of “wound” isn’t enough. Whatever its origin, the gap or opening that our question reveals is also an invitation, a wellspring for creative imagination, and a promise of infinite possibility and beauty.
Speaking your question out loud matters. In giving it voice, you can see the ways disparate pieces of your life connect and find an inner integrity in your passions and pursuits. You might find new paths to follow. You might find as well there are things in your life that you can release because they respond to questions that are not really your own.
Our questions differ depending on our origin, context, and style. They are shaped by the happenstance of the time and place into which we are thrown at birth. But they share a common ontological structure. In their archaic origins — their grounding in our earliest memories and our fundamental sense of what matters — and in their ultimate unanswerability, they point us toward the unfathomable mystery of existence itself. They are our window into the mystery that draws us out of ourselves and towards an infinite reservoir of wonder and longing.
Like you, I did not choose my question. But in letting it choose me, my life gained broader purpose. I offer you the invitation to find your one true question. What is that question that animates your soul? How are you called to respond to its insistence? How does your question give direction to your work? To your spirit? To your responsibility to heal a broken world?
When you take up your question with conscious intention, you will shine brighter and with increased heat. You will find the root of your inner creativity. You will become more of yourself. You will come home to the life’s work that is yours.