Questions that rock

Sometimes I get a question that rocks me back. I got one last week.

On the bike that morning, I had been puzzling over Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. Mine came to four – ‘development’, ‘reproduction’, ‘consolidation’ and ‘decline’. I presented these over tea and reproduction-going-on-consolidation man asked declining-man (me) – ‘if you were offered another hundred years of life would you take them?’

The question rocked me. It was challenging and unexpected, and simply stopped me in my tracks. It demanded an answer that was not going to be easy, that would only come with new thinking and a new realignment of ideas. For a moment it occupied my mind to the exclusion of all else and I was alone as I concentrated on what had been asked and how I might reply. Perhaps I could (should) have already asked myself the selfsame question but hadn’t.

Anyhow, after what seemed like an age, I replied. I would feel very uncomfortable suddenly being given the extra century but, due to my nature, I wanted to go on living for as long as possible. The answer was lightweight and contradictory, the question deserved better. I felt somewhat embarrassed. But it had caused a major rethink; had given me reason to reconsider my lot, and I am still working on it. Indeed, questions that rock inevitably make one reassess ones ideas, forcing one to formulate new approaches, and ultimately to adopt new positions. This, to me, represents great value. Sometimes the solution comes quickly, often it takes time. A question once asked by a student took two years, a research project and a publication to resolve. Sometimes questions can cause discomfort or even hurt, but in my view these are an acceptable price to pay if they engender a rethink.

But while questions are the classical intellectual rockers as they ‘strike’ with such speed and precision, comments come a pretty close second and they are rather gentler. These can be written or spoken, so can arise in lectures, books, films or plays, or simply in conversation. Hundreds will have been rocked when, in a radio interview, an elderly black South African who had suffered all the atrocities that apartheid could inflict was asked why he did not harbour resentment, and replied simply ‘You don’t understand – I want to be free’. At a more personal level, as a young man I was stopped in my tracks when I read William Blake’s proverb: ‘no bird soars too high if he soars on his own wings’, and this adage has reverberated ever since.

Events and observations can also rock but for me the effect is more emotional than intellectual. Little has rocked me more than watching the attack on the Twin Towers, or seeing for the first time paintings by Francis Bacon.

But returning to intellectual rockers, here it is the questions or comments themselves that matter, with the observer deciding on their significance. Naturally, it will be at university, when one is relatively naïve and is confronted continuously by new ideas, that one is rocked the most. As we get older and more experienced there is less around that can rock. And, as rockers are so valuable, those that do present should be embraced. What a waste it would have been for me if I had not heard that question on longevity.

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