What Was Your First Question?

Friday, March 10, 2017 - 5:00 am

What Was Your First Question?

When Dorothy Day was a little girl, she witnessed the world around her reduced to rubble by an earthquake. It was 1906. Fifty thousand refugees fled from San Francisco by boat and were welcomed in various spots along the east bay by welcoming strangers, and were fed, clothed, and comforted. Day wrote of the formative experience:

“While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.”

In other words, at just eight years old, Day asked, Why can’t people always care for one another unconditionally? It’s a question she continued to ask in various forms for the rest of her life — cofounding the Catholic Worker Movement and its many Houses of Hospitality, and becoming a radical legend in the process.

Hearing about Day’s first, big question got me wondering about my own. What is the question that I asked as a little girl and have never stopped asking? How has asking that question defined, even if unconsciously, the choices I’ve made, the things I’ve created, the legacy I will leave behind?

I was stumped at first. Seeing the allegory embedded in one’s own life can be challenging, especially smack in the middle of it. But I started listening for other “first questions” — as I’ve come to think of them. Susan Cain showed up at camp with a suitcase full of books; as the other kids, and probably even a few counselors, gave her strange looks, she wondered: What’s wrong with being quiet? She would go on to write a bestselling book on society’s bias for extroversion called Quiet and launch a movement of sorts to encourage workplaces and schools to embrace those of us who get energy from solitude.

Oprah Winfrey has talked about the way in which multiple sexual assault experiences (starting when she was just 9 years old and none of them prosecuted) led her on a path to tirelessly unveil the light and dark of human experience; it’s as if she’s always asking, What’s the cathartic story here? Similarly, “our own” Krista Tippett has reflected that she wonders how much of her career was seeded in the fact that her father was adopted and rarely, if ever, spoke about it; she has spent a lifetime essentially asking, What shapes people? through kind, fearless conversation.

If my own family is an interesting study: My father grew up answering the door for debt collectors and became a bankruptcy lawyer; one could think of his “first question” as How can I stay safe? My mother was born a wild spirit with a mother obsessed with appropriateness; she jaywalks with a sly smile on her face and loves to point out the elephant in the room because so much of her life has been guided by the question Why not?

Many of these first questions are asked from a painful place. So many of us didn’t get what we needed as children and we spend a lifetime looking for it. But the upside of that initial emptiness is that we create dynamic and beautiful things out of our yearning.

In some ways, these questions are so powerful because they are asked from such a pure place. Children are famously intuitive about underlying dynamics that adults assume they couldn’t possibly understand. They focus in on unspoken truths like homing pigeons and then have the audacity to speak them; the world hasn’t yet acculturated them to fearing the sound of a silence breaking. They are not, in the best of all possible ways, team players. They are inexhaustible witnesses and truth seekers.

Which is what we all are, underneath the home training and the wear and tear of decades of living on this brutal planet. Peel back the layers and we are still the little people we once were, looking around at the adults and wondering what the heck is going on. We are curious and outraged and perhaps sometimes naively sure that there is a better way.

Which brings me to my own first question: I believe it’s less about my family of origin and more about my demographic of origin. I spent so much time in my seemingly perfect neighborhood of white, middle-class people — doctors and lawyers and homemaker mothers — wondering why no one seemed to publicly acknowledge the pain underneath. The bitter divorces, the eating disorders, the rape, the unacknowledged pregnancies, the mental illness… what mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade calls “the white fog.”

Like so many suburban kids, I gravitated towards blues, jazz, and hip-hop music, where people were honest about pain (of a very different kind) and started to ask inconvenient questions within my own family. I discovered that my paternal grandmother had struggled with undiagnosed and mistreated bipolar disorder and a trunk of unlived dreams. I think that, too, is running through my blood in some way (epigenetics helps confirm that hunch), even though I only met her a handful of times before she died.

Which, in some strange ways, leads in a very straight line to a lot of the writing I do. I seem perpetually interested in how to strip privileged people of our delusions — whether it’s a generation of young women who have turned their bodies into infinitely improvable projects (the subject of my first book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters), or whether it’s a country that I believe clings to an outdated idea of what the American Dream is to our own peril (the subject of my most recent book, The New Better Off). I am always asking, in a sense, How can we wake up from our delusions of perfection? (Perfect body, perfect woman, perfect family, perfect home, perfect country…)

That question surprises me a bit. It’s not what I consciously craft my life or work around. I wouldn’t put it on the top of a strategic plan or claim it as my mission statement. And yet there it is, a sort of internal logic to the way I spend my energy and the things that really light me up — both professionally and personally.

So what was your “first question”? What is that question you weren’t allowed to ask as a kid, so you’ve asked it every day since? How has it influenced, even if unconsciously, how you’ve navigated through the world? I can’t wait to learn from your stories…

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • Stephanie Burke

    My first question was told to me by my mother. We were kneeling down to pray (I was something like 3 or 4) to our “Heavenly father” and I asked “What about our heavenly mother?” I have been a feminist my entire life. I just didn’t know it until I was a teenager growing up in a very restrictive church with parents who were trapped in a failing marriage. I started to observe all this chaos and decided I did not want any of that. I am still trying to empower women and girls and also men when they let me. Most of all, I try to stay empowered and live a life that my children won’t be ashamed of.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Love this! I think this is a first question for so many amazing women (and some really thoughtful men).

    • Roy Reichle

      The answer, to be complex, may have confused you as a three or four year old. God is complete in himself and has no sexuality like humans. Individual men and women are incomplete, without both sexes, humanity would disappear completely in less than one hundred years. God the father doesn’t denote God’s sex, but rather the ideal characteristics of a father. He is caring, loving, courageous, brave, merciful, just, all the best things associated with fatherhood. Of course, no one on Earth has experienced the totality of such fatherhood in another human, but that certainly wouldn’t remove the ability to imagine it and place it up as an ideal that God possesses.

  • Tracy Poe

    I grew up in a world much like yours, Courtney. In that world, the cardinal sin was “feeling sorry for yourself.” My paternal great-grandparents were sharecroppers–white ones, descendants of the Deep South’s “trash.” Their lives were bone-crushingly hard and they consoled themselves with powerful myths of how they once were Masters. My maternal great-grandparents were refugees. They struggled with unacknowledged, unprocessed trauma, grief, and substance abuse, but they never expressed nostalgia for the “old country” or any “good old days.” They came here to escape something, to make something new from the shards of their lives they could carry with them. Different as they were, both sides had 2 things that made survival possible: faith in God and in this country’s promise. They used that faith to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. For my parents’ generation and for my own the worst crimes you could commit were ingratitude and weakness. So my question is something like, “What is so wrong with feeling SORRY for yourself, or for others? Why is judgment a greater virtue than compassion? How would the world be different if all those broken-and-put-back-together people had someone to say to them, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’?”

    • Courtney E. Martin

      This is so interesting. Thank you for writing it.

  • Christie Petrone

    One of my first questions was why girls couldn’t be altar boys at church. I grew up to work in women’s rights (and left the church).

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Love that.

    • Ellen Collins Schaffer

      I was one of the first altar girls at the church we attended on Sunday. Altar girls were not yet allowed at the church where I attended Catholic school. The principal at my school, a nun, expressed her disapproval. My experience was short lived. The few priests with whom I served at mass also were resistant to this change. It seemed the female servers in the early years were scheduled to serve at only the early morning mass. At my first mass as a server, my hand was shaking from nervousness when I was trying to pour the water over the priest’s hands. He loudly yelled “just pour it!” This one incident aside, I do recall feeling blessed to have a more intimate Eucharistic experience.

  • Leslie Goldenberg

    I love this piece and it prompted me to recall other question-provoking thinkers. Last year, I attended a conference where Peter Block spoke. Among his many bits of wisdom , Peter challenged the group with this: “What’s the question, if you had an answer to, that would set you free?” He went on to say that he always felt he was born with an invoice, that he owed something. So for him, the question was, “Have I paid the bill?” A few years back, I heard the poet David Whyte speak about his idea of “beautiful questions” which are questions that have no right to go away, that shape your life as much by the asking as the answer. I’m not sure what my question is. It’s worth thinking about.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      I love both of these additions. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you for these other questions, Leslie. After hearing David Whyte speak about beautiful questions, a friend and I decided to ask each other one question each month in 2017. She asks one at the beginning of the month and we both answer by the 15th. Then, it’s my turn. It’s been amazing to see how a question deepens when you have a couple of weeks to let it simmer. My question for March, inspired by Courtney, is “What was your first question and how is it showing up in your life right now?”

      I’ve thought of several questions but the main one seems to be “Where do I fit in?” I think my whole life has been a search to find my place, which has evolved into just becoming who I truly am at my core. I’m very sensitive to when I see others being shunned or ridiculed or ignored. Much of my work involves helping others see their worth and express themselves bravely. In photography, I’m always drawn to subjects that are often overlooked or dismissed.

  • Renee Sharpless Bartovics

    I think that the first unanswered question would be and always seems to be for me, even at age 72 is….”Do I belong?”

    • KL Cockroft

      Wow, that is simple and powerful. So true.

    • Roy Reichle

      You know, I asked that question, too. I still ask myself that question sometimes, but here’s what I’ve found, after fifty-odd years of living, is the answer. “No, you don’t.” In the vast majority of instances, I don’t belong. I don’t like the same things as people around me. I do different things than those around me, and I have stopped caring whether I do or not. I have freed myself from needing to belong. I see belonging as a nicety now. If there’s a level of belonging (belonging is never 100 percent) between myself and a group or a person, good, but if it’s not there I’m fine with it. Why should, or must, I belong?

      • Judy Montel

        thanks for this, Roy. I’m in a similar age bracket and in the process of allowing myself not to belong, not forcing myself or others into situations that suit none of us and certainly to forgive myself and others for just being who we actually are, for heaven’s sakes…
        But in that vein, I have to acknowledge Renee for being so openly herself and owning her question. Kudo’s, Renee!

    • Courtney E. Martin

      What an important thread. Makes me think of the “beloved community” – even if, as Roy points out, it’s not possible to belong 100%, we still crave the feeling of being unconditionally loved and seen.

  • Gabby

    In all honesty, mine was probably “Why does she hate us?” The answer, I came to believe, was that she suffered an unabated pain that could have been eased- but not by me.
    It is probably not coincidence, then, that I have spent my life trying to be there for people, loved ones and strangers, and encouraging others too to emerge from their safe places to be there for people who are vulnerable or suffering.

  • KL Cockroft

    What a wonderful discussion to enter into on a grey Friday morning. What is my question? Growing up first in Bangladesh, and later in Kenya, where I felt daily bowled over by the presence of beauty in unexpected places–whether it was morning glories rambling over a garbage pile in the middle of the city or the warmth of a hospitable family in the midst of slums–I begin to wonder, “How can I bring beauty into the world?” Like Miss Rumphius in the beloved picture book by Barbara Cooney, I felt deeply my privilege in living in diverse, lovely places, but also a yearning to offer beauty back to the world from the quiet spaces of myself. I have sometimes felt at odds with this calling, since my family has practical gifts (my parents dedicated their lives to relief and development work). But now I know that finding, celebrating, and creating beauty in a world marked by suffering is not a call to adornment or frivolity–it is hard, sacred work. That is why I became a writer–but more than that, why I strive to keep all my senses open so I may squint to see where beauty is hiding–often that is in another person, and I find it is a great privilege to say in the context of relationship, “Look, you are the bearer of great beauty in this world.”

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you so much for this. I love the line you draw directly between beauty and alleviating suffering. So many people think the two have nothing to do with one another and they are mistaken.

  • Ellen Collins Schaffer

    In my journal I have a placeholder for “question of the day” and “prayer of the day.” Today my question is “What was my first question?” My prayer is “Dear God, help me remember my first question(s).” Perhaps I’m not immediately recalling because I feel my parents didn’t quash any particular inquiry. Questions are so instructive. I believe we often have the answers intuitively but sometimes they are painful to unearth and acknowledge.

    • Gabby

      Ellen, somehow I doubt any of us truly remembers our first questions. Along with you, I never remember being directed in any way not to ask a particular question. This is very likely a cultural thing rather than a universal thing, the actual suppression of questions being much more common in some milieu than in others. My parents were very traditional but for *their* culture of origin, which was not, for example, Christian or upper middle class/affluent.
      As people of a whole world, it is time to remember that we cannot always generalize from our life experience to everyone elses or automatically understand others lives deeply based on our different histories. We need to be open to quite different stories.
      For example the principle that children should not speak unless spoken to is still held in some traditions but abandoned in others.
      What could be the case, though, for many of us who were not barred from asking questions is that we didn’t think we would get a straight or satisfying (to us) answer were we to ask, so asking didn’t seem fruitful. Or maybe we did ask but did not get an answer that rang true.

      • Ellen Collins Schaffer

        Thank you Gabby, your comments are always thoughtful.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      I love the idea of having a question and prayer of the day. What a beautiful practice. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Valerie

    While I believe my parents loved me, they did not like me much. My father was gone in the military and my mother worked long hours. I spent a lot of time either alone or talking to the back of her head. I was not welcome to touch her and was often made fun of and called names. My mom died quite young, and I will never have the answers I need to cure my heartache. My question was, “How can I escape?” I’ve asked (and answered) that question my whole life as an artist and a poet. I have the most wonderful, vivid, welcoming world in my mind and I find incredible joy seeing that world come to life through my art. It has also brought many loving people into my life. When life is hard I make art.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      WOW, this amazes me. What a profound testament to the power of art, but also the power of human resilience.

  • Clif Cannon

    Thank you and worthy reflection, and I believe my question has always been “who am I, and am I courageous enough to be that “I” in the world?” This question has haunted, taunted, teased and chased me, until, cutting closer to the bone, I came out and returned in a sense to the “I” I was before I knew my name.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Very powerful. Thank you for sharing. I’m sure so many of us share in this first and perpetual question.

  • Jennifer Finn

    I shared this article with the teens at our school today (www.springhousecommunityschool.org) and asked them to share their questions. It was very powerful. I then shared my story that I will share here because it was so enlightening to me. I grew up with a father who had such a painful story growing up. He was run over by a Detroit city bus as a teen and as a result, lived with a colostomy much of his life. We were NEVER allowed to talk about it and I always wondered what it was like to live with a colostomy, or what it even was. It was so hard for me to understand why something so obvious could not be talked about. The elephant in the room so to speak. Much of my adult life has been devoted to facilitating shadow work for people, mostly through dance and mentoring, but the focus has been on the shadow. I have spent my life (including 4 years of doctoral work and a dissertation) on exploring what Carl Jung would call the shadow, the places that are unconscious to us, the hidden places within. I find that so incredibly fascinating that I grew up in a family that was hiding something so major, and I went on to study the hidden places. Very powerful. Thank you so much for this article Courtney.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      WOW, what an amazing realization about your own journey. I’m also so honored that this piece sparked a conversation among teenagers. I wish I could have been a fly on that wall.

      • Jenny Finn

        Thank you Courtney! I also used it today in a staff conversation. Very powerful.

  • Rebecca Martin

    I love this inquiry. When I started reading it, I immediately pictured myself at about age five or six sitting on our front steps trying to figure out how the people from countries my grandparents showed us in slides could speak another language than the one we spoke. My conclusion was that they took our words and substituted secret words for them. My pig-Latin understanding of differences was soon clarified but I have spent much of my life trying to understand how differences emerge and how inclusion of differences enriches our lives.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Love that image.

  • BJ Lindsey

    Growing up ranching and farming, being close to nature, and continually experiencing the birth and death of animals, I would often lie in the grass, or on the roof, gazing at the millions of stars in the night sky, and ask “What does it all mean?”. I have never stopped asking that question as I continue to grow and learn from literature, history, science, theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology. Loving learning, I was always a good student and went on to be a teacher, then a university professor and researcher in the field of Community (Public) Health. Understanding connections helps explain what is, but I often at 66 years of age, believe that meaning is constructed in our need to believe there is meaning.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      I love this. What a gift.

  • Jean Railton

    What a great question. As a small child, I lived in a house that had a gate at one end of the road and a dock at the other. It was clear we were separate from the rest of the small town. I never quite felt like I belonged there, though I loved my neighborhood and the woods and the beach, being outside. I very much wanted to feel connection to friends. I felt isolated and at times like I was in prison. And became ashamed of my separateness. All my life I have had a hard time with friendships and attachments to people.
    Today in my 60’s, this feeling is still with me. Some days I think I must be a freak, other days I’m OK with it and treasure my solitude. So I think the question that has lived with me for all those years is, Do I matter?
    Its pretty basic but very significant to me.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Well I can answer that: YES. Because every human life matters. But I understand the deeper nuance of your question and it’s very powerful to link it to that first physical experience.

  • Janet Wismer

    My first ‘perennial’ question, at @ age four – how to understand death? I imagined life as getting on a train and death was when it was your turn to get off. The question didn’t ask me to ask others. I guess I just needed a way to put my young spiritual concepts into a story. Another prevailing question since I was forty is ‘am I afraid?’ I can say I find a pure ‘why’ question of intention stultifying, better left to a judge. I love to reach into the hearts and minds of others. I need time alone so I may love others. I have a degree in Philosophy with strong emphasis in Theology.

  • Alexandra

    My one and only question all my life, starting very early was “Why are you doing this ?”
    It seemed, growing up in West Berlin during the Cold War, I had lots of “Why…” questions, which made others uncomfortable. Today, at almost 50 I still ask, even though I changed the way I ask by asking: “What makes you do this ?”
    It is interesting how this simple inquiry gets people out of their comfort zone, especially if the question is asked by then a little blond girl. Why are we so uncofortable, when others ask us about our reasons behind our actions ?

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Seems like it produces discomfort because it points out how much we unconsciously. Thanks for asking it. We must. Over and over.

  • Lynn Ursic

    i clearly remember wondering, at a very young age, “why are people mean to each other?”
    seems i have forgotten or forgiven the context for the question.
    this early memory brought to light how long, and all the ways, i have explored kindness and beauty
    in the last 60 years.(with + without success)
    thanks for the question.
    cheers + belove, lynn

  • Roy Reichle

    Many of these first questions are asked from a painful place. So many of us didn’t get what we needed as children and we spend a lifetime looking for it. But the upside of that initial emptiness is that we create dynamic and beautiful things out of our yearning.

    I think it would be nice to see those questions asked from a happy place. Even a neutral place. So much time is spent tracing the effects of the negative, what are the effects of the positive? What is the interplay between the two? To really explore that would be unique.
    What does a child really know about need? I remember growing up with so little in terms of belongings, and parents who were busy with creating a living. They didn’t have much time or treasure to give as a result. Did I need anything more? I mean that in the sense was my physical and/or mental health damaged by not getting it? As spare as my life was, I knew from T.V. there were places in the world, even our nation, where life was less giving. What does a child need to be healthy physically and emotionally? Is it the same for everyone everywhere?
    In my experience, my children’s’ demands for needs were/are, let’s just say, less than essential. My wife and I are far from perfect parents, but the children are loved and they know it. They have what they need to eat, a safe place to sleep, a pretty good school considering we live in rural, northern Nebraska. People on the East Coast would probably be horrified by the “inadequacies” of our school and the lack of opportunity in our region. But need is not determined by perception alone. Is it?

    I really like the last sentence there, “But the upside of that initial emptiness is that we create dynamic and beautiful things out of our yearning.” Yes, how true. In a way, one could say–unmet needs are necessary, for out of what’s unmet comes creative fulfillment.

  • Roy Reichle

    In other words, at just eight years old, Day asked, Why can’t people always care for one another unconditionally?

    In 1970, when I was ten, my family lost our home to Hurricane Celia. Everything we owned was crushed and spread to the four winds–literally. Everyone came together. We lived on a small five acre farm, as did several families on either side of us. Everyone had lost their home. We tunneled into the wreckage, pulled out what foods we could and set to cooking before it all went bad. A man who lived down the street was a Braniff Airline pilot, and he brought everyone chests of ice every day. We set up tents, Coleman stoves, cots, etc. and created temporary homes. Everyone came together in many ways.
    Could we have done that forever? Probably not.
    Eventually, my father had to return to the American Smelting plant he worked at. We would return to school. The neighbors all, eventually, had to return to not just surviving, but forwarding their lives, which requires commitments of time and money. Could I expect them to put aside their dreams and drives for me? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to. I like being as self-sufficient as a modern life allows.
    I think the question Dorothy Day most needed to ask is, “Why don’t people ask for help when they truly need it?” (And “Truly” is important here. I have truly need intercession only a few times, and each time I have asked for it. Why don’t others?) As evidenced by what happened in the earthquake and in the hurricane I survived, people will come to one another’s aid–no questions asked. Outside of obvious disasters, problems often hide or are hidden. Why do people do that? If they didn’t, I think people would respond to the need, just like in a disaster. Like you said in your essay, there’s a white fog underneath the surface. And that fog has a will behind it. People hide their troubles–out of pride or fear of reprisal, but if they didn’t people would respond.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      What a great question: “Why don’t people ask for help when they truly need it?” Thank you.

    • Margaret B

      I too had a time in my life when I needed help — when our family needed help. My husband, diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 7, began to see the long-term effects of this auto-immune disease in his mid-thirties. By his mid-forties he was on renal dialysis. By his fifties he’d lost both legs below the knee, was losing his hearing, the use of his hands, his ability to digest food, and his short-term memory. During those twenty years (from about his age 35 to 53 when he died, we needed help from many quarters so we could manage to raise our 2 children as normally as possible, and deal with my aging mother and the demands of the household (I was the sole bread-winner by then). We were surrounded by a warm circle of friends and neighbours, plus dedicated volunteers from our church that helped with transportation to and from his dialysis treatments, week in and week out, before the Hand-bus program kicked in and took over that area. (We’re Canadian so we needed very little help when it came to any and all medical needs, given our public health system and good insurance for medications and equipment.)

      We learned how humbling it is to have to ask for help — and that’s my point. One has to get past the point of pride that prevents one from admitting one needs help — a type of pride that is fostered in our independent society. Needing help, accepting help is seen as a sign of weakness in Western culture — “one must be lazy or stupid or whatever to be so needy.” Most of the time, that’s simply not true…but one has to acknowledge that one’s need is real, and be willing to reach out and ask. Then one will find out a) who one can truly turn to; and b) that others are blessed when they see they can do something to help; they feel needed, and useful, and that blesses them.

  • Roy Reichle

    Children are famously intuitive about underlying dynamics that adults assume they couldn’t possibly understand. They focus in on unspoken truths like homing pigeons and then have the audacity to speak them; the world hasn’t yet acculturated them to fearing the sound of a silence breaking.
    I wish you would have given some examples of children being intuitive about underlying dynamics, because I have not experienced children bringing out any elephants in the room, outside of my son loudly asking my wife and I in Ace Hardware if “that man is fat?” or “Grandpa, are you fat?”
    Other than that and some funny shows like Kids say the Darndest things, I haven’t come across children seeing to the heart of matters.

  • Margaret B

    This took some thought, as I am approaching 65 years of age (less than six months away)…My father died of a heart attack at 47 — seven months before my 36-year-old mother gave birth to me. She remarried when I was almost 5. I inherited a step-father, an older brother and a younger (by 14 months) sister. I think my first statement was: “I never knew my father.” And my first question? “Why did my mother leave me?” She didn’t leave, physically, but she chose to “leave” me by choosing to love and remarry someone…with whom, it turned out, I never really got along. They did their best to bring us up with love and relative stability but from that time on I never felt I ‘fit’ within the family. They are both gone now — and so is that brother. My sister and I have forged ties which are strong, but never without the knowledge we’re so very different that if we’d met at a party or in school, we’d never have been part of the same circle. I echo Ms. Bartovics with my question, which implies hers…

    • Courtney E. Martin

      That sounds very painful. I wonder how that sense of not feeling chosen has led you to make sure others in your own life felt chosen?

      • Margaret B

        Thank you for your kind response. It’s taken me a long time to acknowledge the truth of it all. My sister never felt she ‘fit’ either…but we have reconciled much of that now. I think, though, that because of it I carried all my life the habit of ‘not forgetting’ others — that is, remembering birthdays and anniversaries not just of family but of close friends, even long after I’ve moved out of their orbit (by moving away from the city). Sending cards at Christmas — real ones — when others opt for e-cards or none at all. Writing a note in each one. Sending letters to elderly friends of the family till they passed on…and to their spouses till they too, are gone…that sort of thing. There are other things too…in that vein…but I’ll leave it there. I simply believe that it’s important to be remembered — not in a grand way (like having one’s name on a building) but in the small, special moments of life.

  • Karen Seay

    I think my first serious and ongoing question was “What is the real reason behind your rule?” I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s in South Carolina. I was taught the conventions observed by “nice white families,” which in my family, like most others I knew, were based in white supremacy. I was also taken to Sunday school and church and taught about Jesus and the things he taught and the way he lived. I learned the song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” which includes the statement “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” When I weighed the practical rules I was taught about how white and black people were to interact, I could never make them fit with the things I was taught about Jesus, which were supposedly the cardinal rules of human behavior. I was taught always to say “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” to adults when answering questions, but when I said “yes, sir” to the black man who hauled away our garbage, my mother scolded me fiercely. I told her I was simply following her rules, and I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. When my aunt handed a lunch plate out to the elderly black man who did her yard work and expected him to sit on the back steps to eat, I suggested we invite him in to sit at the table with us. When she refused, I could not understand why. When my mother would not allow me to stop and talk to a little black girl I encountered in a store, I could not understand the reason. When I was told that the old textbooks the school was discarding in favor of new ones were to be given to the “colored school,” I realized the black children never got new books as we did, and I was so sad that they never got the thrill of using a brand new book. I didn’t know why that should be the case. (Later I learned to ask why there were separate schools in the first place.)

    None of these rules and conventions I butted up against seemed consistent with the Christian beliefs the people touting the rules said they held. The prescribed conduct in all these situations was not something that I could imagine Jesus doing or approving. These experiences made me wary of rules and curious about the real reasons behind them, particularly when the prescribed standards cause burdens for some people and not for others. I have lived my life being wary of the inconsistencies that are apparent when customs, conventions, rules, and laws are not based in the things people say they believe in, whether it be loving our neighbors or standing up for justice for all in our country. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies between professed beliefs and the standards we actually live by seem to be proliferating mightily these days. I find myself asking more and more every day when I read about the changes underway in our government and in our lives, “What is the real reason behind your rule?”

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thanks for this–it also points out that so many of the “first questions” we ask are rooted in spotting hypocrisy. I hope to nurture that in my kids, not squelch it, as surely it will be inconvenient and potentially even point out my own b.s., but ultimately it will be a great teacher. (As you were.)

  • Alida Woods

    Thanks, Courtney, for opening up the questions. I had a similar experience to your questioning. I grew up on the campus of an all boys boarding school, surrounded by a beautiful campus and very privileged young men. My life was very sheltered until I went to the local public school-my parent were wise enough to have me attend public school. The school is located in a lower middle class, rural part of northern New Jersey. In school i saw kids who came to school hungry and not well dressed, kids whose parents lived in trailers in the country. I began to ask “why” and “how” could life be so different for each of my classmates. When my only and best friend’s father was murdered in the basement of his dry goods store, murdered because he was a Jew- they were the only Jewish family in this tiny town, the questions got bigger? Where does that kind of hate come from? Those question still guid my actions and have guided my career in education and work in social justice. Those questions go unanswered.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Wow, so powerful. I think, for me, what is most intriguing is the violence that exists in all socio-economic classes — it just shows up in different forms.

  • kelly alford

    thank you, once again, for a beautiful, thoughtful essay. i am so drawn to your challenge to discover my first (unanswered) question. looking back, i think it must have been “why is it so difficult/painful to tell the truth?”

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Indeed. A very important one.

  • SarahB

    Wow, beautifully essential! And thought provoking. It is of course the kind of stuff I geek out about. Thinking. I can remember vividly sitting up in my bed trying to make sense of the universe. How did it all begin, come together, was God sitting at the edge of the solar systems looking down at us? What was the meaning of it all? My mother gifted me a book when I was 6, inside the dated book cover she wrote that she would not always have all the answers but that perhaps I could find some in there. It was a collection of creation stories from around the world. A beautiful book. I have always been curious, fascinated by our fundamental stories with their symbols and archetypes; always searching for a sense of purpose and adding layers of meaning. In my personal and spiritual life I feel very connected to this moment. In my professional life, I help people and brands connect to their origin stories and empower them to share them. As you say, it’s not a strategic plan but has internal logic. Thank you for prompting this conversation and reflection!

  • Summer Edwards

    Fantastic question to ponder. I grew up (in Australia) with parents on welfare (disabilities, mental illnesses, and caring for 5 children were the factors, as well as socioeconomic disadvantage). From a very young age I saw talented individuals (my parents, my low income peers, people with mental illness, survivors of abuse) being unable to contribute to the economy. I saw the depression, and further marginalisation that occurs when you aren’t a valued member of the economy and society. So I asked myself “Why can’t the economy create the spaces for everyone to actively contribute their talents, and be supported to do so within their constraints?” Of course, this is an adult’s wording of my original question. A child question was simply “Why?” “Why must this be the way it is? Why can’t it be different”.

    This original question has lead me to be an activist, social impact consultant and a social entrepreneur. I will never stop asking this question, except now I don’t ask “Why?”. Instead I ask “How?”. “How can the economy (and society) be changed so that everyone can contribute their unique talents, within their constraints?” This question will drive me until the very end of my days, I am sure.

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  • Joy Davis

    Deep thought—my question would have been–how can you say you love me when you spank me? I am nearly 81 and still carry the pain, rejection and mother abandonment of my childhood. Oh it doesn’t hurt all the time, just once in a while. I am realizing how painful all that was while I withdrew into the world of books. A safe place. Years of therapy and “child within” work ease it, but have accepted that this is part of the fabric of my soul, a piece of who I am. And I am safe with who I am.

  • Rosie

    I spend a lot of time either facilitating or being part of learning groups. As the years have gone by I have recognised that I am often one of the first, or the first, to express myself in a vulnerable way. I grew up in a family where the backdrop was domestic violence and alcoholism. This was never overtly addressed within our family. As a kid, my fears, terrors and emotional state with regard to this was never enquired into. My parents, my very loving Mum was too busy surviving the nightmare of her marriage, my Dad entangled in his own self-destruction, oblivious to the impact on his family. I find myself as an adult saying the unsayable. I find it difficult, and can in fact get angry, when I feel that people are skirting issues, or not being authentic. I guess my first question is something like, ‘Why can’t we be honest about what’s happening.’ This drives my work as a teacher… Thank you for listening…

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  • CrummyVerses

    I’ll never forget it: “So why have kids?” My father was arguing aloud about the state of things in our world and how he couldn’t take it anymore, teary-eyed. Seeing my dad cry has always affected me but on this particular instance I suppose my 8-year-old brain was ripe enough to ask this kinda question. It hurts just thinking about it.

  • Sally Park

    Trying to lighten this up a bit: Even though in many ways my childhood was significantly darkened by a violent and alcoholic mother, divorce etc… my siblings and I did have fun, BIG fun, when we could. I choose to hang on to those memories. My 3 older siblings were each a year apart, and I came along 4 years later.. so my earliest question was and continues to be, “why can’t I do that, too?” And so I do.. ask, and do.. quite a bit..great question!

  • Katie Gordon

    Hi Courtney! (Long time reader, first time commenter. :))
    I recently started gathering a group called “Nuns and Nones” in my community – Grand Rapids, MI – between the local Dominican Sisters, millennial non-religious folks, and a few in between. As an interfaith, inter-generational space for dialogue, relationship-building, and question-asking, we united around the idea that Nuns and Nones in particular have unique positions as those who are often on the fringes of their traditions, asking questions and challenging institutions.
    Anyways, our second gathering is this weekend, and we’re using this article as our shared reading to spark conversation! I’m really excited to hear about the questions the Sisters have formed over decades of activism, and the questions that the millennials among us have only started to shape. It’s even more fitting since we started our first gathering with Rilke’s poem about living the questions. So –
    Thank you for writing this piece and sparking our own shared questioning!