They’re among us — MILLIONS and millions of em! Look around yourself as you’re reading this sentence. There may be several of them in the same vicinity of where you’re reading this passage right now. Don’t be too obvious looking around just yet. Keep your eyes glued to the page in front of you. Ah-Ah-Ah! — No quick glances either. If there are any of these folks around you, whether you recognize them or not, they’re already aware that you’re reading this book. Keep reading. They’re happy for you, whether you realize it or not.
The phenomenon we’re referring to above has yet to be formally acknowledged. Recently, I made a rather profound discovery. That’s what this book is about; sharing the dimensions of this discovery with you.
Trust me…I understand your next few questions:
What do they look like?
How might I recognize one?
Where did they come from?
Should we fear them?
Do they go to school, have jobs and make positive contributions to society?
Are they safe?
Am I safe?
Can we trust them?
What do they sound like?
Can they fly, float, sing or dance?
Do they glow in the dark?
For the sake of this brief introduction, let’s just say that, you might live next to one. You’ve heard their voices before and were unable to distinguish between them and yourself. One could be sleeping in your home or playing with your children at this very moment. They’re not bound together by race, creed, color, language, religion, political persuasion or ethnicity…they inhabit every hemisphere, nation and neighborhood. They have not appeared recently on this planet by virtue of some random Darwinian evolutionary mutation. They’re not aliens. We have discovered they’ve been here since man first walked out of the cave (or realized she/he was in one and thought about exploring beyond their current confines). They eat and drink everything you can imagine. They drive. They reproduce. You or someone you know could be pregnant with one at this very moment. They’re employed in virtually every occupation known to man (including the new emerging occupations). The overwhelming majority are not celebrities…fame or the lack thereof has nothing to do with this reality or recognition of their existence. They do not carry special credentials or a strange stamp on their passport. Some have tattoos. If you’re reading this book on an airplane — the flight attendant or the pilot might be one. They have no physical characteristics that would allow you to immediately recognize them. You might be in the midst of dozens, perhaps hundreds, where you work! One of them might be babysitting or coaching your children or your grandchildren. Don’t be frightened, but — your spouse, family members, friends, acquaintances, or your child’s music teacher might be one — and you’re not even remotely aware of it.
You should be. Keep reading!
I am a practitioner, writer, reader and thinker. I care deeply about our world. My career has been in the private sector. Writing helps me assess what I think (at the moment). I make my home in the USA. Most of what I read and write as a result of my thinking I share via intense bursts of dialog. That’s where I met you – where we ran into each other – in the midst of an array of terribly important questions facing our community’s, our organizations, our world — wrestling with questions facing us. From my side, there appeared to be a theme that we both began to explore rather accidentally, yet, simultaneously. We started to share emails, bantering back and forth, asking each other questions about the essence of what we were thinking, reading and writing about – about life.
About six years ago, I began to realize that several questions always seemed to arise during dialog with people. I didn’t bring them up – they did. This happened in all types of social settings; business relationships, cocktail parties, on hikes, people we met while traveling, the grocery store, faith communities, schools etc. Here are a few of those questions:
1. Can you tell me about your faith?
2. What’s your political affiliation?
3. What do you do for a living?
4. What country are you from?
5. Where do you live?
We humans attempt to see others around us. Always have. Always will. Yet, we use tools beyond our visual capacity to see. We use our verbal, visual, scent, touch and auditory equipment as well. “How people see you matters.”[i] How we see others matters as well. We see and are seen. It’s a process that is both conscious and unconscious. It involves placing our assessments of life (and those who populate it) in cognitive compartments – oftentimes for the sake of convenience and ready reference should another similar situation arise. Yet, these cognitive compartments can also be impediments to more productive forms of communication, intimacy, learning, growth and collaboration. How we see ourselves matters.
If your life experience is anything like mine, you encounter questions about you – your faith, ethnicity, occupation, religious, social justice leanings, beliefs, values, attitudes, opinions and/or political party affiliation, by a wide variety of people, in a number of different social settings. Some of these probes are obvious (INCOMING!-cognitive compartment probe!). Others may escape your recognition. You are both a recipient and a distributor of these probes. It’s simply part of the way we see the world in which we live. Author Sir Ken Robinson shares a pertinent story in his book, Out of Our Minds – Learning to be Creative; “Education is not always a good word to use socially. If I am at a party and I tell someone I work in education I can sometimes see the blood drain from their face. “Why me?” they’re thinking, “Trapped with an educator on my one night out all week.”[ii]
I’ll avoid the ethnic, political and occupational stuff here and use the question about faith as an example from my life. I became tired of answering their questions with, “I’m a Christian, but…” After the “but,” I would attempt to go on to enlighten the inquirer about my spiritual beliefs, my relationship with God, and the way I live my life. Not like some over-caffeinated zealot either. I was simply responding to their question in a subtle, ordinary course social conversation. By this time, their eyes were usually looking around for a way to escape, or their head had fallen to examine the tops of their shoes. They were clearly prisoners of the pre-conceived definition they had adopted about what I was going to say before I got it out of my mouth. They had crammed me in a readily available mental box right along with everybody else. I instantaneously become “one of those.” I placed myself at an immediate and distinct disadvantage by using the Christian label.
The “Christian” word I innocently uttered had overshadowed anything I had to share with them that actually reflects my faith journey. Actually, they weren’t listening. My dilemma is quite common today. People are yearning for a different label to apply to their Christian faith, political affiliation or important dimensions of themselves rather than the traditional ones that are infected with all sorts of attitudinal, experiential and socio-political baggage. “Christian” doesn’t work anymore in the postmodern, western, developed world. The term has become irretrievably corrupted. It’s a conversation killer. It’s as much a polarizing influence as the terms Democrat, Independent or Republican (to name only a few).
I began to think about this phenomenon – intentionally. I adapted. I developed an audible mechanism when people inquired about my faith. I would say, “I’m a Christian, but…” (audible emphasis on but). Guess what? It didn’t work. I made the firm decision to move beyond being the ‘but’ in response to somebody else’s question.
At this juncture, several years ago, I began to study the impact that language and labels have on human relationships, identity and human potential. Throughout this process, I was led to many different topics and domains like genetics, neuroscience, public policy, international relations, social-psychology, organizational behavior, philosophy, theology, economics, spirituality, psychology, sociology, curiosity, innovation, how we learn, human development, creativity, compassion, community, consequences, courage, culture, invention, exploration and discovery. My life has been populated by ideas and idea people. I have worked both as an independent consultant and as an executive for several of the FORTUNE 100. The bulk of my energy during those three decades has been helping people see what they cannot see – listening, reading, synthesizing mounds of information, evaluating perspectives, people and their plans and proposals – then leading them to reconsider their current thinking, their behavior, a strategic plan or an entire business model into a form that is more likely to be successful (and/or less unsuccessful). I guess you could call me an amateur versus some sort of celebrity social-psychologist. I adore how Clay Shirky defines an amateur when he writes, “Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare- “to love.” The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.”[iii] This book, The Questians, is the story of my journey…our journey. A journey I embarked on for the love of it. It’s ongoing – stay with me.
What became apparent during these years of study was that domains (identified above) or idea spaces don’t communicate with one another as well as they might. This is particularly true when we are dealing with subject matter regarding the unseen within the human experience. The challenge becomes one of integrating and connecting the idea spaces within disparate domains and generating a new vantage point – a bridge or connection if you will – based upon a collection, integration and application of the findings and writings of those who reside in these spaces. Author Steven Johnson captures the essence of this phenomenon when he writes: “You can’t step back and reflect on your own thoughts without recognizing your thoughts are finite, and that other combinations of thoughts are possible.”[iv]
Social-psychologist Mihaly Cszikszentmihalyi has written: “Most creative achievements depend on making connections among disparate domains.”[v] Enter, the metaphor – the connection: The Questians. Consider the words of a theologian regarding the magic the metaphor provides:
“The simple fact is that life is mostly invisible, inaudible, untouchable. Life may be ultimately inaccessible to our five senses, but without the evidence supplied by our five senses it would for the most part elude us. It turns out that the quickest and most available access to the invisible by means of language is through metaphor, a word that names the visible (or audible, or touchable). A metaphor is a word that carries us across the abyss separating the invisible from the visible. The contradiction involved in what the word denotes and what it connotes sets up a tension in our minds, and we are stimulated to an act of imagination in which we become participants in what is being spoken. Metaphor is our lexical witness to transcendence – to the more, the beyond, the within – to all that cannot be accounted for by our microscopes and telescopes, by our algebra and geometry, by pulse rate and blood pressure, by weights and measures. . . when used as a metaphor, a word explodes, comes alive – it starts moving.”[vi]
Today, I am going to give you what I sincerely hope is a gift – a gift many of you reading this book have yearned for: It’s the gift of permission. From now on, if your experience is anything like mine, when people ask you about your faith, political affiliation, or any outright or veiled attempt to place a label on you, or put you in an existing compartment of their mental wallet, purse or travel bag – you can now respond, “I’m a Questian!”
Of course, they’ll look at you either dumbfounded or with an expression of a distinct degree of the quizzical – so be prepared to spell Questian. They’ll still be perplexed so tell them “I’m on a quest. I’m a unique human being whose beliefs about God, politics and life are not neatly packaged in a box that somebody else has manufactured to put me in. I believe in the more of life. My view of life is being formed and reformed. I’m on a journey exploring the wonderful, awe-inspiring transformation that inhabits the possibilities for this life – outside somebody else’s box.”
Instead of answering somebody’s question about your faith, occupation, worldview, social consciousness, ethnicity or political affiliation with the quip, “I’m a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, lawyer, banker, straight, truck driver, liberal, moderate, conservative, Chinese, South African, gay, Brit, Texan, Aussie, housewife, house-husband, business owner, Democrat, Independent or Republican,” which may end the conversation before it starts, maybe we should reconsider the response we so readily provide. I have.
If you respond to an inquirers question with either “I’m a Buddhist, Republican, Democrat, Vegan, Independent, Liberal – or I’m a Questian,” which response do you think will engender the curiosity of the inquirer and provide you with a less biased basis upon which to have a fruitful, authentic dialogue? I suggest to you that a ‘Questian’ is a bridge builder to new frontiers whereas faith, occupation, ethnicity or political party affiliation (and a myriad of other terms and phrases endemic to our culture) have become a negative, widely held, deeply embedded social stereotype from which we must emerge. They serve to compartmentalize people and principles – artificially restricting the power of possibility that we all possess. You and your life deserve more than either the restrictive confines these labels create, or the unfortunate identity they impose upon you and those around you. It’s not just a term or a word, as theologian Eugene Peterson says, “Words—spoken and listened to, written and read—are intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness, wisdom and hope.”[vii] Yet, it’s more than that.
This reality, The Questians, is vastly more than simply introducing a cute term or phrase you might throw into a social conversation. The elements that comprise The Questian, include the following that we will explore in each section of this writing:
Questians are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere.
Questians are essential – they serve an incredibly valuable personal and cultural function.
Questians possess a quotient that is impaired by both the seen and the unseen in life.
Questians – are composed of an inherent capacity. A capacity that can be developed.
Questians are impacted by context or the various environments we inhabit.
Questians yearn to learn.
Questians are both curious and creative.
Questians are compassionate.
Questians are people in process – who embrace the quest with courage and faith.
Questians are people of the possible.
Questians create new forms of communication, collaboration and cooperation.
Questians create consequences.
Questians create common ground – fertile for new forms of community to emerge.
Questians are shaping the future.
To count yourself a Questian is an inspiration. It provides one with direction – a new approach to daily living – or a lifestyle. The awareness of the intrinsic value of life as a Questian can oftentimes be reinvigorated, reformed and renewed – with new, refreshing meaning. Let me share a personal story with you to illustrate a bit further.
One day, I published an interview I completed with author & activist Brian McLaren regarding a new book he wrote that was about to be released. Here’s the interview question that served as a decisive moment in my journey to explore this reality in-depth:
Question to Brian McLaren from Bill Dahl: Symbols speak to us. Is this one poignant for you and your new book?
Here’s Brian’s response: It’s so relevant, Bill, because as you know, the book is based on a simple observation: Statements create debate that can lead us to a new state (and sometimes create, as a byproduct, hate), while questions create conversations that can lead us on a new quest. So this book is very much about the power of questions, and about seeing our faith less as a tradition we inherited from our ancestors, and more as a quest which both they and we are on … the quest for truth, the quest for beauty and goodness and love…
Of course, I began exchanging views on the above with friends. Shortly thereafter, I wrote the following to embellish what Brian had shared in the interview:
What’s a Questian?
From Bill Dahl: “I see this symbol, as a framework for inviting people of the quest (Questians) to a place where we can celebrate this dimension of the reality of our lives together. It is an invitation, rather than a label. It is a festival about coming out and coming together. It’s a celebration of the human creative capacity. Rather than solely an individual characteristic, it is also way of living. For organizations, Questians hold the promise for the realization of the potential of the enterprise. We notice the novel. We exude the excitement essential to experiment. We’re listeners and observers. The quest inhabits the ways we serve, the reverence we exhibit for the gift of life, and the compassion that dwells in our hearts. We are those who cherish our endowment to ponder, wonder, question and stand in awe. We possess perspectives on the prospects. Questians are propelled by the courage to move beyond man-made boundaries. We’re a curious lot. Our kind provides the inertia for innovation, the energy for exploration, and the drive for discovery. We possess the audacity to advocate for potential. We ask why, what if and what about? We’re nuts about networks where nodes of ideas knock noggins. Dialog and discourse are precious to us. Conversations are cherished along with the dignity deserved by those who share viewpoints contrary to those we currently cradle. We’re typically suspect of certainty and comfortable with the contrary. We’re apprehensive about answers that come in a box. We treasure learning and the privilege to be a part of the ongoing positive transformation of our species, and the civilizations and cultures we’re creating; including imagining and moving toward new iterations of the same that can and must emerge. We’re all about erecting bridges; constructing and connecting new and essential relationships that have heretofore eluded us. We appreciate the intrinsic value of sacrifice and sharing. We’re willing to be wrong and concede the need for concession and reconsideration. Hope fills our veins as creativity throbs through our brains. We know there is more to be known.
Ours is a symbol of permission. It’s an expression of acceptance, adoration and gratitude for the precious privilege and responsibility that inhabits our daily breath. It is a tangible image embodying the realization of who we are and what we can become. It is a representation of those who cherish the freedom of learning to become the one’s dedicated to freely living more fully today. It is an expression of the essence of the inquisitive and the curious. It is the heartbeat of the hopeful and the icon of the inquisitive. It is the source of desire within the dreamer, the designer and those dedicated to visions of a better destiny. We are the people of the possible.”
Up until now, the formal recognition of the existence of actual living, breathing Questians has been treated as an unspoken, inert, ethereal phenomenon – unseen. It’s similar to an undiscovered DNA strand that runs throughout the entirety of the human genome. We’ve known something was missing yet, we’ve all known it is here – among us.
This writing is about using language, experience, history and vision to put legs, feet, hands, hearts, faces, pulse, breath, eyes, ears, actions, motives, mindset and voices to this reality. Charles Handy has said, “Words are the bugles of social change — “When our language changes, behavior will not be far behind.”[viii] In this regard, I am asking you to conceive of the ideas contained herein, “as living things, inescapably connected with our wills and desires, as susceptible to growth and development by their very nature.”[ix]
NOTES – Prologue – Any Questians:
[i] Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate The Spirit Level – Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger Bloomsbury Press New York, NY Copyright © 2009 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. P. 40.
[ii] Robinson, Ken Out of Our Minds – Learning To Be Creative, Capstone Publishing Ltd. (A Wiley Company), 2011 Edition – Copyright © 2001 & 2011 by Sir Ken Robinson, p.7.
[iii] Shirky, Clay The Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, The Penguin Press, New York, NY Copyright 2010 by Clay Shirky. pp. 82-83.
[iv] Johnson, Stephen EMERGENCE – The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Scribner New York, NY Copyright © 2001 by Steven Johnson. P. 200.
[v] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perrenial, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, New York Copyright © 1996 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. P. 338.
[vi] Peterson, Eugene H. The Jesus Way Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge U.K. Copyright © 2007 by Eugene H. Peterson. p. 25-26.
[vii] Peterson, Eugene Eat This Book – A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge U.K. © 2006 by Eugene H. Peterson. P.21.
[viii] Handy, Charles The Age of UNREASON Harvard Business School Press Copyright © 1994 p. 17.
[ix] Trilling, Lionel The Liberal Imagination, A New York Book Review Book – published by The New York Review of Books, Copyright © 1950 by Lionel Trilling. P.303.