ARE THERE ANY QUESTIONS?
“Are there any questions?” An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings. Said when an audience is not only overdosed with information, but when there is no time left anyhow. At times like that you mostly assuredly do have questions. Like, “Can we leave now?” and “What was this meeting scheduled for anyhow?” and “Where can I get a sandwich?” The gesture is supposed to indicate openness on the part of the speaker, I suppose, but if in fact you do ask a question, both the speaker and the audience will give you drop-dead looks. And some fool — some earnest idiot — always asks. And the speaker always answers. By repeating most of what he has already said. But if there was ever a little time left and there was a little silence in response to the invitation, I usually asked the most important question of all: “What is the meaning of life?”
You never know — somebody may have the answer, and I’d really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I asked, it’s was usually taken as a kind of an absurdist move – people laughed and nodded and began to gather up their stuff and the meeting was dismissed on that ridiculous note.
Once, and only once, I asked the question and got a serious answer. One that is with me still. I went to an institute dedicated to Christian understanding and Biblical truth in rural Montana. At the last session on the last morning of a four-day seminar on Christian influence in American culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields, the man heading up the seminar, Dr. Alexander Lapagia rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the river to the iron cross marking a cemetery from the W.W.II era. He turned and made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?”
Quiet quilted the room. These four days had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. “No questions?” Lapagia swept the room with his eyes. So, I asked. “Dr. Lapagia, what is the meaning of life?” The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go. Lapagia held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious, and seeing from my eyes that I was.
“I will answer your question.” Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into his leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this: “When I was a small child in Italy during World War II, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — into deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, however, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game, but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But the light of Jesus — truth, love, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I was once a broken shard of mirror whom Christ has shaped into a better tool for shining light. I am a fragment of His mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and Jesus can use me to change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.” And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.
Much of what I experienced in the way of information that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still. I can now “reflect” upon what I learned on the meaning of life. Are there any questions????
— an adaptation of a story by Robert L. Fulghum