Softer Answers

Recently, I sang with a friend at her church. The whole experience was delightful, if totally nerve-wracking for someone new to singing publicly (excluding karaoke, of course, at which I’m a pro!). We performed the Indigo Girls' “Strange Fire,” a new-to-me tune that, as it turns out, contains a lyric I absolutely love: “I come with softer answers / to the questions that lie in your path.”

We face so many questions as we move through life.

Sometimes we see them coming from miles away. Others surprise us; we trip and fall on them in the dark. A question might loom large from a distance, but be easy to sidestep when we get close. Or, the opposite: we plot a long detour, but it’s waiting for us when we return — and it seems to have grown. Some questions will even walk beside us, evolving with every step, as we do.

Difficult challenges. Knotty problems. 

So. Many. Questions. 

With respect for human intellect, it alone can’t answer them all.

The intellect is a most useful tool. More than that, it is essential to our humanity, endowing our species with distinct capabilities and promise. I prize it. This is not about sidelining or maligning the intellect. 

However, the rational mind produces a very particular kind of solution. Sometimes, it engineers brilliantly, but other times these “hard” answers create as many problems as they solve. Or, they address symptoms without tackling root causes — and punt the deeper challenge. As Robert Burns wrote it: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy! 

This difficulty doesn’t signify a weak mind; rather, it points to emotional and social complexities that require something different, often flexibility and compassion. In these situations, the intellect needs the refinement of beauty, creativity, and emotion. 

It needs softer answers.

What are softer answers? How will we know them?

I believe this kind of knowing is different for every person. So, my first and real answer is that only you hold the key. However, I can suggest a few points of entry, i.e. practices to help you step waaaaaay back, release the knot, and access your own wisdom:

🌍Contemplate nature. Imagine a soothing breeze, sweeping across the land with quiet power. Think of rivers, shaping continents over millions of years. Feeling tiny?

🐙Study another species. I love the octopus, vulnerable without exoskeleton, yet unmistakably intelligent, graceful, and confident in deep water.

📖Recall a favorite poem, and note how it sheds light by shifting things out of focus. 

🦄Delight in whimsy. I see Mary Poppins, aloft by umbrella and teeming with magic. Her disdain for logic and outcome is somehow essential to her impact — a beautiful paradox.

🌻Offer an act of kindness, random or otherwise. (Feels so right!) 

🧘🏽‍♀️Sit in prayer or meditation, or with a sacred text. Be moved by a wisdom tradition that is meaningful to you.

💞Inhale the warmth of a loving embrace. Exhale the tenderness of cherished moments. 

“This,” you think. “This is all that matters.”

That moment of clarity, friends, is the mark of the softer answer. 

I trust you have all known the feeling. 

The trick is to listen for whispers, to really hear them, and to weave them into the work of the intellect. They will, for all their softness, be the strongest and most vibrant threads in your tapestries.