Questions and questioners

Harry Drabik

Enjoying a slash of sun in my yard last week I heard the school bells ring. I graduated from that school. Couldn’t help think the bell sounded much the same. No doubt different bells were used now, but new to old had somehow formed a continuity in time. But really, there’s not much comfort in that when experience with a recent law school grad uncovered a remarkable ignorance of English punctuation. I don’t like the suggestion behind an old familiar façade hiding sad results. Miss Emily, in my view THE American poet, said this in terms of entertaining plated wares upon her silver shelf. Use of revealing image in a poem is useful in its way as knowing what in hell commas are used for in law.

Inquiry was a role I stumbled on for schoolboy survival. A priest had me kiss a piece of stone he’d brought from Blarney, though neither of us believed I was much in need of it. But thinking it couldn’t hurt I kissed the piece of rock. The rock I usually had to kiss came in the form of avoiding or placating the unwanted attentions of gentlefolk schoolmates who knew as little of what to make of a four-eyed nerdy boy as he knew to make of himself. Never having danced, I no less did daily acts of improvisational ballet. On my toes minus the funny shoes was regular routine. Finding it better to be laughed at than beat up I’d talk my way in or out of unlikely areas.

A bully would respect me for getting up to mischief I’d then act so innocent about the blame would be shifted. Let confusion rule. Plus on Friday it could be useful having me in class to run a distraction play to lure a teacher into talk that might put off a dreaded quiz. This usually didn’t work but gained protective credits from those who might poise to squash a bug like me. Failed or not, mounting a quiz delay effort was appreciated and did make the eventual quiz less a menace because we’d at least attempted its defeat before looking it in  the eye on desktop.

Use of a questioning model is OK. The tactic is workable and useful. As a fifteen year old I asked the typical questions of a boy my age. “When do we eat?” “What’s to eat?” “Is there desert?” A ravenous body out did a hungry (or bored) mind, though I suppose I asked decent questions for a fifteen year old. Asking of grownups was easy because the adult mind is a rather settled platform, very unlike the amusing chaos in a teen noggin. Drawing teachers into talk was One, Two, Three simple. Teens required different nets. “If you had one sin you could ever do what would it be?” My fellow pimple producers liked such queries, but typically avoided the possibilities of greatest interest to me and very likely to them as well. Possibly most of us thought better sin than we dared perform.

At fifteen I was God-skeptical and dismissive of sin as a stupidly ancient idea. Sin was a topic of clergy and a worry for the fathers of girls I walked out with; little did they need worry. With my easy questions and sophomoric depth of knowledge I was essentially too ignorant to do much harm. It was fun playing the role of an inquisitive inquisitor, but there was little risk I’d get lost or drown in my pea-size ocean.

I mentioned sin as a way of easing an unhappy line of inquiry into the open. Easy questioning is the same plated ware of easy or glib dismissal. Neither gives the weight or value of sterling. I’ve come to think a good question should be either damned disturbing or awfully annoying. Like this; what happens when much of a society rejects sin as a consideration and replaces it with crime? And, what’s the difference between sinning and criminal acts? They seem to have some similarities, but are they the same?

A crime can be unlawful but may not be immoral. Civil disobedience is crime done for what the doer believes is good cause. To that extent, at least, notions of sin and morality invest the concept of illegality and crime. I’m prone, for sake of simplifying argument, to pare things to bare essential. To illustrate my meaning I’ll suggest that when sin is discarded as a means of understanding human acts the scene shifts away from personal responsibility to a social or public problem where individual responsibility has a more passive role. I’m not saying there’s a need to preach sin, but in a clear and classic sense the concept of sin is also a part of a concept of personal responsibility. The individual’s role is easily over-washed with circumstance and extenuations when seen in the crime model where violation is a public problem where society assumes some responsibility for acts of individuals. Seen today, crime is frequently viewed as a collective responsibility. I don’t have a position regarding sin, certainly not one to fit in this short piece. But it appears clear as ringing school bells that issues of individual sin are of a vastly different nature and importance than those of collective social responsibility. For me it was intriguing to take an odd look at an unpopular topic such as sin.

Sin is an uncomfortable subject. But, good topics should challenge, cause anger-upset, and push a rethink of what was unquestioned. I like questions that don’t have ready solutions. How can educate to find student strengths and weakness if it’s too kind doing so? How do we support labor by bringing additions to the work force? Isn’t foreign interference in US politics inevitable with open borders? Useful questioning helps reveal contradiction, impossibilities, oversights, and errors. A useful question is also dangerous, but I suggest that avoiding or not asking dangerous questions is moral failure, aka sin. See how a concept worrisome to secular society can be of use individually? I sin when I give a menu of cake already consumed or when I generously dish up your cake as mine to give. I hear the morning school bells ringing.