By Julia Spiegel
“I don’t care. That’s not the question I asked you. Please answer the question that I asked you,” my client’s attorney aggressively requested. The statement doubled in intensity when the translator repeated it in Spanish. I am a legal advocate at Apna Ghar, Inc., an agency that serves immigrant survivors of domestic violence and I was accompanying my client to a consultation with a family law attorney for an order of protection and representation. Shocked and a little awed by the lawyer’s harsh method of asking questions and obtaining answers, I imprinted this moment in my memory.
A great deal of my job is about the art of asking questions. In asking the right questions, I can begin to show a woman that I am trustworthy, that I am listening, believing, and validating her. On the other hand, if I ask the wrong question, it can be a detriment to our working relationship. A survivor calling our hotline might be speaking about her abuse for the very first time, making me the first person she’s asked for help. The power and delicacy of the situation is immense. Every time I answer the hotline, I seek to remember that even if components of the story being told sound familiar because of previous calls I’ve taken, the current conversation is unique to the woman who is calling and so very fragile.
As my anecdote at the beginning illustrates, I spend a great deal of time observing and thinking about attorneys’ techniques for obtaining information. To be sure, an attorney’s role is very different than that of an advocate – the attorney needs facts to assess for credibility and to think of the best way to present the story in court. My job is to listen, believe, and offer information. But applied more generally to life, I wonder if attorneys are on to something. Perhaps the no nonsense attitude is actually more productive: harsh but honest. There are certainly times in life when this approach is useful or necessary.
So much of this year as an AVODAH corps member has been about grappling with questions and juggling all the new ones that arrive as our experiences in our workplaces continue. I believe wholeheartedly that attorneys play an extremely important role in society. I see how essential they are to my clients’ self-sufficiency and ability to enter a new violence-free phase in their lives. But when it comes to the larger questions, perhaps it is wise to think about a different approach. My fellow corps members and I have had numerous meaningful conversations about the questions this year has brought to the forefront for us: are we even making a difference in this imperfect service system? How can we re-imagine non-profits to be more effective? To school or to travel? What does it mean to be productive? The list goes on and truth be told, I cherish the conversations themselves, the exchange of ideas, and the connections they fostered among us more than our conclusions.
There are different types of questions with which we grapple. As the various areas of my life have all brought up more questions than answers this year, I find it useful to think about their classifications. We’ve got the “attorney’s” hard, factual questions, the ones that are tangible and useful to answer. We also encounter the “spiritual” questions, to which many answers or none at all can be reached. And we also have to ask ourselves which type of questions we are grappling with today, and maybe realize that coming home with more experiences but not more answers is okay.
Months after the experience with the attorney, I led a program with another AVODAH corps member entitled “Living the Questions” in which we discussed the copious amounts of inquiries piling up in front of us all as the year of service approached its end and how we confront them.
Thinking about that day, I remember something Irwin Kula so wisely wrote: “Our culture rewards knowing and makes not-knowing a liability; but about the important things in life, it may well be the opposite. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be- it can lead to arrogance, boredom, complacency, and dullness. Living the mystery means dancing with certainty and uncertainty, knowing and not-knowing” (Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, 2006). I would like to add a social justice perspective to that idea. Sometimes the questions that eat at us the most, which hurt our hearts a little more than we’d like, the questions we live as we work with people who have endured more injustices and pain than we can conceive, are the ones whose answers elude us the most. That lack can fuel us in the social justice field to do our work well. That anger at the absence of accountability, of answers, can be a motivating force for good.
May we all continue to embrace life’s questions, thinking critically about which ones deserve our answers, which ones can and should anger us, and which ones are more meaningful to dance with.
Julia Spiegel is from Evanston, IL, attended Indiana University and is a Community Associate at Apna Ghar.