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But then we were out the other day and, as I found my thoughts captured by the beauty of a seagull circling above, I turned to my wife and said, following our granddaughter’s style, “I have a question.” She laughed so I continued, “We see thousands of birds up there. Why do we hardly ever see dead birds? There must be thousands of them all the time.”  She pulled out her phone and spoke to it: “Google, where do birds go to die?” I won’t give you the answer, you can do your own talking to your Alexa, Siri or Google. I might have commented here before that I find I seem to be asking more questions than I used to, questions like, why do we see more vapour trails in the sky than we used to, or why does the temperature drop a little when it starts getting light every morning?

In the comedy, ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare has that famous passage that begins, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” If you know it, you know that stage 1 is infancy, stage 2 the schoolboy, through to stage 6 the old man and finally, stage 7, dotage and death. I found myself reflecting on this in respect of Ella (the schoolgirl) and me (the old man) pondering how, in youth, we ask questions which seem to fade away with the business (and busyness) of middle life, but which perhaps have the chance to be revived with the time that retirement and old age provide.

But then, there in the context of something completely different that I was reading, I came across this quote by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Keep your eyes open to your mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life,” and it crossed my mind that this should also be applied to this topic, to read, “Keep your eyes open to the wonders of this world. The man who stops asking questions has fallen asleep in life.” It left me wondering, ‘Did I fall asleep to this world in the middle ages of my life, and have I now started to wake up?’

Almost certainly no previous age in history has had such incredible access to information as the Internet has given us today. I have demonstrated already how my wife pulls out her phone to get answers to questions of every shape and form, colour and hue (assuming I haven’t managed to beat her to the draw!). My son-in-law was doing it long back with his iPhone – the younger generation are always ahead in these things – in a most annoying manner. Any question or point of dispute in a discussion saw him gently tapping on his phone and coming up with the definitive answer – always right of course!  Now it’s us as well!

But, as I have pondered on in this reflective mode, I have wondered if all I have said above is strictly accurate. When we (this silver-haired, silver-surfer generation) were young, my Ella’s age, did we ask questions all the time? I’m not too sure. I come from a country background and country kids (fewer of them these days) just got on with the enjoyment of life and (in my case at least) rarely thought of the stuff of the wider world. No TV meant no 24-hour news, no pop programmes, no documentaries, and little knowledge of what went on in Westminster. And I certainly never asked questions about birds dying, vapour trails or early morning temperatures! But then I also had town-dwelling cousins in London, roughly my own age, and I’m not sure if they asked questions either – certainly not in my hearing anyway. Suburbia failed to stir the mind.

And then I find myself pondering on this younger generation with so much knowledge, so many experiences open to them that were just not there sixty years ago, and so the very presence of all this, I am sure, generates an outward looking mind (for those who have a mind to be able to this, I suppose) that is looking, seeing and asking questions.

In another question-stirring-resource (a book) the other day, I came across this writer who said, “From early age I loved learning but never cared much for school,” and there I was again, asking questions in my mind, such as, “Why is it that so many people from all age groups say that their school days were not the happiest days of their life?”  Is it, I wonder, about stirring in pupils the excitement about the possibilities of learning and stirring into being a questioning mind? If only.

A danger, of course, is that we think knowledge is the same as understanding or wisdom (which it isn’t) but it strikes me that we have meandered our way, almost by accident it sometimes feels, into an era where the world is our oyster and information is out there in so many forms that just invites the enquiring mind to grab for it.

For instance, I have just flow over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, courtesy of Google Earth, driven around the streets of Moscow, gone and had a look at Perth, Australia, where a friend is visiting and then on down to Bluff near the south end of the south island of New Zealand – and back in time for coffee.  Something I’ve noticed in recent months, is that both my wife and I ‘go there’ by Google before we set out for somewhere we’ve never been before. Don’t even talk about maps, this is driving along the road to a friend’s home in the outskirts of Los Angeles, so when we arrive there, I casually say, “Yes, we were here outside last week.” Oh yes, it’s another world, this global village.

But it’s not just places. I spent a happy half hour before dinner last night watching a lecture (courtesy of Amazon Prime) on how the thinking has changed in mathematics in the last half-century – OK that required a bit of perseverance, I only got to ‘O-level maths approaching sixty years ago! But it’s all there and it’s not expensive, much less per month than we’ll pay for the main course at a meal out. All it requires is an enquiring mind, and I have to confess that, since Ella has stirred my thinking, I am stirring up this mind to go places, think things and learn stuff I would never have dreamed of decades ago. Folks, it’s all out there and we have the time to enjoy it. It’s a new day, a day of questions. Now what was I going to ask? Oh yes, let’s ask Google about ‘questions quotes’ to finish with. These snippets are all anonymous:

[Addendum: subsequent to writing this article I asked Amazon’s Alexa on my Kindle Fire, “How do you look after Agapanthus bulbs over winter?” To which this sweet voice came, “I don’t know the answer to that,” to which I replied, “Alexa, you are rubbish.” No reply. Insulting a machine that knows better not to answer???? I then asked Google on my phone and got the full answer. Draw your own conclusions!!!!]

“Questions are never silly, just irritating. Questions are never daft, it’s worse never to ask anything.”

“Even though asking questions exposes your ignorance, you are wiser than the person who never asks anything.”

“I didn’t ask questions at school because I didn’t want to appear a nerd but it turns out everyone else in the class wanted to know the same thing but was afraid to ask. We lost out.”

“The art of getting the answer you want from Google is learning to frame the question appropriately. Ill defined questions produce vague and unsatisfactory answers.”

“Even asking the question indicates you are alive to the world around you and all its possibilities. To be able to ask means you have already started down the path of understanding.”

“Asking ‘closed questions’ simply gets ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers from people. Asking ‘open questions’ means the other person will have to explain and explanations give you what you want.”

“Asking questions of people – not in an interrogating way but showing simple interest – is what builds relationships. True relationships are built on knowledge of one another.”   

“Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, are the building blocks of asking open questions that bring true sharing.”

“The day we stop asking questions, will be the day life leaves us.”

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