The Simplest and Hardest Question
by Mark Chmiel
At some point in each course, I ask a question that is one of the simplest and hardest questions of all.
A hand may shoot up after I pose it, thus indicating an avid interest in sharing with the other students the answer, well, her answer, to said question. Death-stares sometimes are the result from other students.
Typically, I will bring up the question when we are talking about the Buddha’s teaching on “Right Livelihood.” Other times, having already covered that topic, I will bring it up yet again because of a phone call or face to face conversation I’ve just recently had. It seems ever appropriate.
Like that late October, I’d just recently met with Maria, who had taken my class when I first began teaching. She called me to see if I was free for a visit, as she was back home visiting family and friends. “Of course, Maria, it is always a pleasure to see you.” Yes, it was a pleasure because she had the most striking green eyes I’d ever seen. And yes, also because she was a talker, and all I’d have to do is ask one question, and she’d be off and running and filling me in on her recent vacation to Tokyo, her graduating from Cornell’s Law School, her overzealous preparation for the Washington DC Bar Exam, her placid life with her artist boyfriend and her stern disenchantment with her girlfriends whose first question to her is, “So, when are you and Harry going to get married?”
Maria and I met at a coffee shop across the street from the rival university in town, and she brought me up to speed in the course of two hours (as we were bidding adieu, she said, as if it had just occurred to her [as evidently it did], “Hey, I didn’t get to hear about you! We’ll have to meet again so I can hear what’s going on in your life?”). She was sharing all the rich gossip about her friends, most of whom I had had, at one time or another, in my class. What they were doing, what they had ceased to do, how one was getting divorced from her husband after marrying him in a beautiful Catholic service 20 months before, how confused some of them still were about “finding themselves.”
Maria had been pre-med in her first year and a half as an undergraduate and she told me that her decision to be so was simply thoughtless. “What happens when you’re in high school and and you’ve been smart and studious? People tell you to be a doctor. Doctors are smart, right? You’re smart, so they—my parents, or my counselor, or seven teachers or my boyfriend—make it sound like it’s the most normal, natural thing in the world: Be pre-med when you go to the university. So you get all this affirmation, and people already look at you as something special, so you don’t even have to think about anything else. ‘Yeah, I’m smart, sure, I’ll be a doctor someday.’ But after my chemistry and physics classes, I realized science wasn’t for me. And all the work I was doing on campus with Amnesty made me realize, ‘This is where I feel such verve!’ And one spring day, it was just totally clear to me: ‘Hey, I’ll do law!’ And I never had any regret about it. My job now with Amnesty is what I dreamed of in undergrad after I got off the pre-med track. But I’ve now got several friends who are in their last year of med school or have already started their residencies, and they are simply lost, Doctor Schimmel. And I don’t know what to say to them.”
“I know, Maria, it’s too late now. Someone should have said something to them their sophomore year and saved them a lot of grief.”
Former students will run into their friends who are taking my class, and ask, “So, has he asked the question yet?” Current students are said to look perplexed if I haven’t yet posed the question; if I have, some of them look disconcerted, my former students say, and would rather talk about that evening’s schedule for beer-drinking.
In fact, I never tire of posing the question, and observing the facial expressions on the students. For example, that late October: “Ah, Joe’s flummoxed. Lara’s smiling. Brandy is daydreaming. Stella appears confident. Layla, hmm, her face is strangely blank. Poor Andy though: he looks terrified.”
Of course, a student paying close attention can legitimately ask, “Why is he, above all people, asking us that question? How does he answer it for himself?”
The question, so disarming, so lacerating, is this: “What do you really want to do?” Not tonight, not this weekend, but with your life?
After I asked that question there’d be an awkward silence of a minute or so, I’d amplify: “So, what is it you love to do? What are you good at doing? And what can you do that might make a difference to somebody else?”
Not what mom wants you to do.
Not what Jesus would do.
Not what Arjuna would do.
Not what the Baal Shem Tov would attempt.
Not what Christina Aguleira is doing.
Not what your relatives in India do.
Not what Father O’Heir thinks you should do.
Not what frat boy boyfriend insists you do.
Not what corporate lawyer daddy believes you ought to do.
Not what Chairman of your department thinks is best.
Not what your twin is gonna do.
Not what your gal pals are planning to do.
Not what your idol, living or dead, does or did.
“What do you really want to do?”
After the class, Layla Espinoza slowly walked to the front of the room as I was packing up my books.
“Doc Schimmel, I think we need to talk.”
-from novel-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris