February 11, 2024 Essay: Unanswered Questions

Feb 2, 2024

Someone has said that a person faces four questions as one goes through life.

As an adolescent, one of the main questions is: “Who am I?” As a young adult, the main question becomes: “What am I to do?”. Later, around 40, “Whom am I with?” And finally, around 60, “What does it all mean?”

You could quarrel with the timing, with how old a person usually is when he or she asks these questions, but it would be hard to quarrel with the questions themselves. They are always relevant and provocative.

Because we are about to enter the season of Lent, and because Lent is often a time to be more consciously introspective, it might be a good time for us to look at what’s currently happening in our own lives. A few questions come to mind.

Is my life taking me outside myself, beyond the range of my own needs and concerns? We only start to live when we can get outside ourselves and away from the very stubborn tendency to be self-centered and self-serving. The Christian scriptures keep reminding us that the point of being human is the effort to care passionately about others, not the effort to care passionately about myself.

I see this altruism, oftentimes strangely enough, in people who are dying! The dying are often more concerned for their loved ones who will survive them than they are for themselves and their own pain. I often think of the story told by Fr. Lawrence Jenco, the priest abducted in Lebanon and held as a prisoner for a year and a half. After his release, he talks about visiting his mother as she lay dying in a hospital. When he approached her bed, she tried to speak to him, but he couldn’t hear her.

So, he bent closer to hear her last words of wisdom, words that would surely be filled with great meaning and insight. With great effort, she clearly whispered: “Did you have lunch?” She died within the hour.

I’m always moved by this story, and I tell it frequently. It shows so clearly the complete lack of self-concern in a person who had every reason to be self-concerned at that moment.

This coming Wednesday, we will be entering the season of Lent. For a Christian, this may be an ideal time for some healthy self-questioning.

“Am I becoming a more self-giving person?

A more caring person?

A more forgiving person?

Is life teaching me that I am not as independent as I may think I am, or as I may want to be?

And where is God in all of this?”

May the season of Lent be a rich and rewarding time for all of us.

— Rev. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest