Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Jan 27, 2021

Asking and Embracing Beautiful Questions

When the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I longed for that feeling of renewal that typically accompanies ringing in a new year. A deep breath. A fresh start. The pain of the onslaught of losses of this past year deserved a formal send-off. Of course, I knew better. The last year destroyed any semblance of foregone expectations. And yet, I still couldn’t shift that feeling of deep longing in my heart. A habit of ritual, letting myself be tempted by a sense of hope, the inevitable tendency of humanity to right itself and find a better way forward. It was only six days later.... “Oh, you fool you.” I’m not sure what hurt more: my disappointment in myself or in us.

I was raised to see my fundamental responsibility as helping people. To make the world better than I found it. To take decisive action and to offer up solutions, not just name problems. And yet, this was a year characterized by new norms that still don’t feel normal. Distrust and disconnection, fear and anxiety, pain and even panic, have become a shared experience. A collective trauma that seems to defy individual action. Amidst so much turmoil, I found myself wrestling with a sea of questions:

What stories do we need to rewrite?

Like many white people, I was raised to believe we had transcended the inequities of our past. Or at the very least, that we had made significant progress. So much so that the best way to heal our nation’s historic wounds was to simply look past our differences, to pretend they do not exist. Such storytelling is delusional at best.

Over the last decade, I have begun to unlearn this naïve, harmful blindness. To see the fullness of every person, to identify every intricate, beautifully distinct facet of a person’s humanity. I’ve also begun to observe my mind’s tricks, its rush to quickly label and sort people into boxes. Neither a blindness to difference nor crude categorization will be a useful way forward. We’re not all the same, nor is any one of us just one thing.

Our country is in the midst of a profound wake-up, one that is undeniably long overdue. Yet, in these moments of elevated social strife, I find myself wondering: where — and what — is our collective memory?

What darkness must we sit with because it’s vital we witness it?

Like many Jews, I was raised to never forget. The memory of historic atrocity is both ingrained and integral to Jewish identity and upbringing. Our inherited anguish ensures that we remember not only the events but their meaning, their feeling, their embodied significance. This memory shapes who we become.

A few years ago, I visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum and Memorial for the first time. As I internalized a more honest narrative about our country’s atrocious past, the feeling that accompanied me was eerily familiar. While I’d never been to Alabama, I had been to Auschwitz.

And yet, nothing justifies my memorialization of one people’s oppression more than another. Just as there cannot be a hierarchy of humanness, there cannot be a hierarchy of oppression. Ignorance and shame about America’s history, in particular the shame we carry as white people, prevents us from fully appreciating the depths of our history, and the myriad challenges Black and brown people face today as a result. Shame survives in darkness. We must truly see our deep and abiding wounds if we ever want to be healed. We must bring them into the light.

What is true now that was not true before?

It is always easier to reach for anger and judgment, to be blinded by the vengeful desire to dissect the world into simple binaries of good or bad, insane or rational, shrewd or idiotic. As human beings and creatures of connection and community, it feels enormously comforting to locate our experience in polarities. Our deep longing to feel part of an “us” overwhelms the hurt of creating a “them.” Might this be a good time to push ourselves to resist the simplicity of a binary altogether? While it’s important to understand the lines we will not cross, it is just as important to clarify those we will.

This moment is rife with important intellectual arguments: is it time for accountability or unity? Are we more or less divided? Yet, such questions may mislead us. Rather than debating these “hard questions,” as my dear friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson taught me long ago, might this be a time to start with “big questions”? Questions that anyone can answer when they listen to their hearts. Questions that open us up to each other instead of shutting us down.

Parker Palmer similarly teaches the art of asking open, honest questions. These questions come with the promise of “no fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” Such questions are in service to our intention to help each other listen to our inner truth.

When we’re open, vulnerable, and whole, the fullness of one’s story — all of the richness and texture and complexity and beauty — begins to emerge and unfold.

Who will we be in this moment of becoming?

The road ahead will surely be complex and challenging, as the road that got us here was long in the making. Yet, rather than lean into my reflexive muscle for doing and for “solving,” perhaps this is the time to reach for deeper understanding. For more wondering. For more seeking. For more knowing. Though, here I must be careful again. This is not about knowing the answer, but about better knowing each other. Valerie Kaur shares in her memoir, See No Stranger:

Wonder is our birthright. If we are safe and nurtured enough to develop our capacity to wonder, we start to wonder about the people in our lives, too — their thoughts and experiences, their pain and joy, their wants and needs. We begin to sense that they are to themselves as vast and complex as we are to ourselves, their inner world as infinite as our own. In other words, we are seeing them as our equal. We are gaining information about how to love them. Wonder is the wellspring for love. . . .

We have to complicate the narrative, as Amanda Ripley and our friends at Solutions Journalism Network teach us. It’s the only way to see a fuller picture. We have to be willing to embrace and understand nuance, because it matters. We have to push ourselves to be more comfortable sitting with questions to which we have no answers and appreciate their unbearable weight. We have to walk together into the tightest part of the Gordian knot and riddle our way out of it, together.

How might beautiful questions help us understand ourselves and each other?

Last fall, Einhorn Collaborative launched a new strategy to invest in the change needed to help America realize its full potential, our prevailing commitment: to see humanity in a new light. Moments like this one call me into a place of wonder, seeking to fully understand the meaning of this ambition again and again.

What does it mean to see humanity in a new light?

The answer to this question is constantly unfolding around me. It's when we ask these beautiful, open, and honest questions that we begin to discover imagined possibilities, shared histories, and common dreams. Such questions do not demand one correct answer but instead invite us to know each other more.

Our minds are designed for snap judgment and default assumptions. When we feel with our hearts, instead of thinking with our minds, we open ourselves up to a different, deeper sense of recognition, to appreciate our individually unique and collective experience of the world. When we move forward not with conviction but with honest uncertainty, we create the possibility to imagine the world differently.

Humanity shines brightest when we are each and all illuminated, when we can see and be seen, love and be loved. In its brilliance, humanity is a complex mystery always in the process of revealing itself — if we are fully present, with an open heart, and paying careful attention.

The relational era is not anchored in certainty, but rather in curiosity. It is rooted in the need for deeper awareness and connection between and among us. When we embrace our individual longing to be fully seen and known, we begin to recognize that can only happen when we begin to fully see and know one another. This is what it will take to transcend “othering” and move into a place of true belonging.

We are stepping into 2021 with more questions than answers, and a deep commitment to listen and learn. This year, I invite you to join us in asking and sitting with beautiful questions, with thanks to our friends at BBMG and This Human Moment for a guide to get us all started. We hope we will all emerge with a deeper understanding of who we are, our collective self, so we may find the confidence and conviction to move forward with intention, together.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.