It probably happens four times on a good day, a dozen on a bad day. I find myself saying to someone, “I just don’t understand…”

For the past thirty-five years of our marriage, the wise spiritual guru with whom I live, has been gently trying to coax me away from the habit. Mostly these days she just smiles and is quiet, letting me jabber on until my urgent compulsion to comprehend begins to exhaust itself.

I wonder what it is I am trying to do when I struggle to understand the often bewildering realities of life.

I expect the drive to make sense of life is mostly a desire for control. Somehow it seems that, if only I can figure things out, life might feel a little safer and more predictable. The forces of chaos could be held at bay if only I understood why things are as they are.

Of course, the older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom of my wife’s often repeated reminder, “You don’t understand anything.” My attempts to make sense of the the world, are futile. It is true, I do not know what is going on.

In Elie Wiesel’s novel The Judges, Razziel the religious teacher and school principle, tells the story of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the renowned Talmudic scholar who is known as the Maharal of Prague.

In the street, the celebrated Maharal of Prague meets his noble friend the Emperor Rudolph, who asks him where he’s going. 

‘I do not know, sire,’ replies the Jewish sage. 

‘Come now, are you making fun of me?’ asks the Emperor. ‘You have left your house to go somewhere, and you really don’t know where you’re bound for?’ 

‘No, Your Majesty, I do not know.’ 

Incensed, the king has him arrested and put in prison for high treason. 

But when the Maharal of Prague comes before the judge, he justifies his remarks to the Emperor by asking the judge, ‘What did I say to His Majesty that was not true? I told him I did not know where I was going. Was I not right? When I left my house I thought I was going to the synagogue – and yet here I am in prison.’ 

Our best efforts to understand the meaning of events are merely groping in the dark of unknowing. We have no ability to predict the future and no real ability to determine the ultimate implications of our actions. We are not in control.

The Old Testament figure Job is the patron saint of the determination to understand. What does Job get from God at the end of thirty-seven chapters of wrestling to make sense of life? After the torrent of words from Job and his advisers, God gives Job, sixty unanswerable questions to which Job can only reply,

I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:3)

Appropriately the etymology of the word “understand” is obscure. It is a compound word, made up of the word “under” and the word “stand”. It is thought that “under” may have been used in this compound word, not in the sense of “beneath” but in its Old English connotation of “between” or “among”. So, to “understand” something did not originally mean to make sense of it, or comprehend it, but to be in the midst of it, to be with it.

Wisdom comes from being with the questions, living in the midst of the uncertainties and confusions of life.

We are beset on all sides by questions we cannot answer. The purpose of questions is not answers. The purpose of questions is to cause us to open more deeply to the realities of life. Questions serve to help us remain aware of the limitations of our comprehension and to live more humbly with those limitations.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters To A Young Poet,

have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday way in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. 

When we can hold the questions in all of their uncertainty and confusion, we begin to open to a deeper reality.

Questions have the power to make us more tender, more humble, flexible, and wise. Answers shut us down. Questions create openness and depth. When we are able “to love the questions themselves,” we begin to be able to listen more deeply and receive life more fully. We discover a new depth of understanding.

When we allow the questions to do their work, we become able to hold the various polarities and tensions of life without needing them to settle into a tidy resolution.