Elisabeth Elliot's Daily Devotional
Author: Elisabeth Elliot
Question-and-answer is a vanishing art. We are so drowned and smothered and deafened by panels, dialogues, rap sessions, discussions, talk shows, and other such exercises in the pooling of ignorance that, far from developing the art of asking questions and giving answers, we have very nearly lost it altogether. The time allotted for a program must, it seems, be filled--it doesn't much matter with what.
When is the last time you heard a clear, short question asked and a straight answer given? My heart sinks when it is announced that, following the lecture, there will be time for discussion. People put up their hands, but it turns out that it is not information they are after at all. They want the floor. They go on and on.
I was one of the panel of experts (i.e., married women) discussing the subject of marriage in a college women's dormitory a few years ago. Afterward there were lots of questions. But it was hard to figure out just what the questions were. Here is one of them (verbatim--I did not make this up. It was taped and then transcribed):
Um--like--um--I have a couple questions. Do you think--like--that--uh--do you think a woman could have a call just to be--like--a wife, but not--like--not just to be a wife--like, say, you know--if you're gonna be personal--like--my own engagement--like--I have a gift of--you know--a talent in music, you know--like--I mean, I know you're not saying--like--you know, especially in that case, I mean, you're saying more like--you have--like--I think our greatest thing in common probably is--um--is that--you know--is the dedication to serve God--you know--in the desire to, to follow--you know--to do his leading and--like--neither of us, you know, and especially in this kind of life you don't have a blueprint of what you--what he's gonna be doing necessarily, you know--and I'm just kinda concerned because like--you know--I've even thought about that cause I've kinda had a conflict--you know--growing up that way--you know--I'm talented musically--you know--so therefore I should probably look for somebody that's talented musically but he--he likes it--you know--I mean, he doesn't understand it totally but I'm sure we could live happily together with it, you know, but I don't expect him to have a--you know--yearning to go to all the Beethoven concerts or anything--you know--but I mean--I've heard of very happy marriages where--you know--there's quite different--you know--interests--you know--there.
(I apologize for not knowing the rules of punctuation for this kind of English.) Nobody on the panel knew what the girl was asking. She was confused--that came through loud and clear, but she might have seen through some of the fog simply by making the effort to clarify and shorten her question.
Sometimes I have been tempted to tell the audience that only questions of twenty-five words or less will be entertained. But I don't want to put people off any more than I can help.
William Strunk, Jr., in his wonderful little book, The Elements of Style, gives this advice:
To air one's views at an improper time may be in bad taste. If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions. You must make it clear that you will not attend, but you do not have to let fly at cats... Bear in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a speaker. Try to keep things straight.
Americans dearly love to be polled for opinion. They feel that they ought to have opinions, to "hold views," on everything, and polls give them a chance to let fly. It is interesting to note how small a percentage of those polled admit to having "No opinion."
If the answer is Yes, say Yes. If it's No, say No. (The Bible will back me up here.) If it's I don't know, say that--if you possibly can. My daughter had a classmate in the seventh grade who, when asked a question by the teacher, never raised his chin off his hand, but looking into space said glumly, "I don't know." To a second question he replied, in the same laconic tone, "I don't know that either." I couldn't help wanting to know which boy that was. I liked him. It was discouraging for the teacher, I'm sure, that he didn't know, but it was not nearly so discouraging to hear him say so in three words as it would have been to hear three hundred words which came to the same thing. Every day in the mass media we have to listen to palaver, twaddle, and balderdash which, when interpreted, means "I don't know."
Some people are constitutionally incapable of admitting they don't know. "Well, let's just say I don't know the answer to that one," a woman once said to me.
Great people, however, can often disarm us completely with a candid acknowledgment such as Samuel Johnson's when asked by an indignant woman whatever made him define pastern as he did in his lexicon. "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance!"
The Quechua Indians of Ecuador have a way of dropping the corners of their mouths, thrusting out their chins, and gazing off across the treetops, saying "Hmm hmm?" which is supposed to convey the impression that the matter is a mysterious one which they are in on but which would really be beyond you. At other times they come up with ineluctable answers like the one a missionary got when he wanted to know the name of a tree with yellow flowers on it. The Indian studied the tree for a little while, shading his eyes with his hand, and then said earnestly, "Well, I'll tell you, Senor Eduardo. That tree over there, the one you point to, the tree with the yellow flowers on it--that tree, Senor Eduardo...we call The Yellow Flower Tree."
The late W. H. Auden once appeared on a television interview and it was delicious to see his interviewers thrown completely off balance by the clarity and the brevity of his answers. They had their questions carefully worked out and the timing approximated, but long before the show was over they were casting about for new questions. When they asked if he thought of poetry as a means of self-expression, he said, "No, not at all. You write a poem because you have seen something which seems worth sharing with others." The ideal reaction from the reader is, 'I knew that all along, but I never realized it.' He could, I am sure, have lectured for an hour on that one subject, but he didn't. He had a sense of occasion.
"You will be living in Oxford, England, Mr. Auden. Do you expect to be teaching there?"
"You won't be teaching. (Pause.) Well, Mr. Auden, as you move into the more--shall we say--mellow years, would you say that you have any unfulfilled ambitions?"
One of my unfulfilled ambitions was to hear a simple answer on a TV talk show. Thank you, Mr. Auden.
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