32 Big Questions That Spark Personal Growth
The invites communities across the country to talk among themselves.
Photo illustration: Lincoln Agnew. Baldwin, sign, flag, Putin, capitol: Getty Images. Flood, Kim, pussy hat, McCain, Black Lives: Alamy. Bee: Myles Aronowitz. No Hate: Roger Kisby/Redux. Pope: Kobi Gideon/Rex Features/ZumaPress. Earth: NASA.
As a new rabbi at Northwestern University's chapter of Hillel International, the Jewish campus organization, Josh Feigelson believed the banner announcing Yom Kippur services should inspire passersby to reflect. For this holiest day of atonement, he says, "I wanted something more than 'Saturday, 10 a.m., Hillel House! Repent!' " Instead Feigelson wrote, What will you do better this year?
Then he added a few ideas: Donate blood. Drink fair-trade coffee. Call your parents. After the banner was hung in the university quad, "Students kept telling me things like 'My friend and I saw your sign and had this amazing conversation,'" Feigelson says. By popular demand, he created more question banners: For homecoming, Where do you feel at home? For Thanksgiving, What are you thankful for?
Students got involved, creating a video series of person-on-the-street responses and leaving Post-its on chairs in lecture halls. Professors hosted salons.
Hillel International itself had a question: Could this be something major? So in 2011, it launched the nationwide initiative Ask Big Questions invites communities across the country to talk among themselves., which has now inspired organized discussions among more than 300,000 college students, congregations, and other groups. "It brings people together to talk about the questions we share as human beings," says Feigelson, now dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "There is a hunger for these kinds of experiences because they give us the ability to trust each other." Ask Big Questions publishes conversation booklets, trains facilitators for formal discussions, and helps campuses design their own programs, centering around such questions as "Who is in your community?" or "When have you been a witness?"
"A big question is about something that matters to everyone, and everyone can answer it," Feigelson says. "It's not 'Are people naturally good or evil?' That's a hard question—put that out there, and the two people who think they know the most will start debating it while everyone else watches." Big Question participants tell their personal stories without feeling pressured to prove a point or take a stand, says Sheila Katz, vice president for student engagement and leadership at Hillel and cofounder of Ask Big Questions. "You and I might have stories that are true for each of us, even though they oppose each other. We try to create a space where everyone's story is right."
Discussing big questions is not only about sharing and listening but also clarifying your own values and beliefs, says Feigelson. He recalls one conversation before the 2016 election in which a young immigrant woman told the group that she'd registered as a Republican because her father insisted, though she didn't plan to vote that way. "She couldn't challenge him," says Feigelson, "but the next day she stopped me and said, 'After listening to everybody else, I think I really have to be honest with my dad.' That's awesome! Talking about it took her from fear to courage. Questions can be a wonderful source of stability and strength."
Ready to launch your own year of living quizzically? Ask Big Questions is here to get you started.
These questions make for enriching dinner table conversation, but they can be equally illuminating if you simply ask them of yourself. "I've learned that I'm the last to know most of the things that happen to me—I was a music major, but my friends all say, 'We knew you were going to be a rabbi,'" says Feigelson. "I think I stumbled onto the idea of asking big questions because I need them myself. They drive our growth, and we can come back to them year after year."
For whom are you responsible?
Who comes to mind when you think of the word responsible? Why?
Are there people for whom you feel more responsible than others?
How do you decide who needs you?
Where do you feel at home?
If you imagine home, what does it look like?
How has your idea of home changed during your life?
What would it take for you to leave your doors unlocked at night?
Who is in your family?
How do you decide who is in your family? Who gets put on your family tree?
Are there people you're not related to whom you treat like family? What leads you to treat them that way?
Conversely, do you have relatives you don't treat like family? Why?
How do you listen?
When have you really listened to someone else? What happened when you did?
When have you felt truly heard and understood?
Is it hard for you to listen to perspectives that are different from yours?
What do you choose to ignore?
Have you ever consciously chosen to stop ignoring something? What happened as a result?
How do we stop ignoring things that might be helpful for us to see?
Are there times when it's good or useful to ignore something?
Which day in your life would you like to live over?
Is there a day in your life you really regret? Is there a day you would like to revisit?
Is there a story in your life or your family's life that you tell often?
Do you tell the story differently than it actually happened? Why?
What could you sacrifice to repair the world?
Is there a difference between giving something up and sacrificing it?
Is there something in your life you wish you had sacrificed? What kept you from doing so?
Was there ever a time you regretted making a sacrifice?
What have you learned so far?
What is one lesson you would teach your children? How did you learn it?
Who is an important teacher in your life?
Is the life you're living today aligned with the most important things you've learned?