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Three Questions to Ask During a War (and During Peacetime, Too)

We live in the Too-Much-Information Age, when it seems like the more information we have, the less we can find or develop informed opinion, context and knowledge.
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The Overwhelming Sea of Information
Maybe you've experienced this, too: In the last few weeks, with teens abducted and murdered, a retaliation murder, rockets flying, bombs dropping, and a ground war raging in Israel and Gaza, I have felt awash in information. My Facebook feed, my Twitter feed, my email inbox, dozens--dozens!--of online newspapers, blogs and magazines, all dripping out pieces of information, stories, images, and videos.

We live in the Too-Much-Information Age, when it seems like the more information we have, the less we can find or develop informed opinion, context and knowledge.

Between the military situation, the political situation, the media coverage, and the lives of my friends and family, I find it hard to be quiet enough to deal with my personal situation. To ask myself: How do I feel about all of this? How do I understand what I choose to read and what I don't? For whom do I feel more sympathy and empathy? And for whom less? And why?

It's overwhelming. It makes me feel as though it's impossible to know what's really going on, or to make informed judgments. It leads me to be skeptical of everything I read or see because everyone is telling their "story" from their own point of view. And it makes it really hard to be quiet long enough to let myself feel the complex emotions that all of this noise creates.

So: What can we do?

Step 1: Stop
The first thing to do is stop. Just stop. Put down the phone. Close the computer. Turn off the noise machine for a while. Breathe. Breathe. Nothing else that I have to say is going to matter unless you do that.

So take a minute and prepare. Go ahead--turn it off. I'll still be here when you come back.

Ready? Okay--now, read the rest.

Step 2: Three Good Questions
The novelist Ursula LeGuin wrote, "There are no right answers to wrong questions." Responsible education, responsible leadership, and frankly responsible personhood, begins with taking the time to carefully consider the questions we're asking.

To begin to make some order of the chaotic mixture of information, opinion, and emotion, I suggest there are three main types of questions to consider:

  1. Clarifying Questions (i.e., What do we know? What do we think we know?)
  2. Interpretive Questions (i.e., What is the meaning of what we know? What story do we tell about what we know?)
  3. Reflective Questions: (e.g., How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world, and ourselves?)

Separating questions this way can help us disentangle the web, and help us stay afloat, and even find a course, in the sea.

Clarifying Questions: What do we know? Or, What do we think we know?
This may be the hardest question of all. The truth is very few of us have a clear sense of the totality of the facts of this war, or of any situation. There are simply too many people--too many places, too many actions, too much information--for any of us to know what is happening with certainty. We know that people are suffering and being injured, physically and emotionally. We know that people are dying. But beyond these certainties, it's hard for any of us to feel firm in our knowledge of facts.

So we have to treat our information as provisional, not certain. We need to separate that which is clearly opinion, propaganda, or sensationalism, from good, reliable information. Wherever possible, we should be looking for information from multiple sources that strives to be objective, data-driven, and empirical, without first coming to conclusions.

Finding that kind of information is hard, especially when we know that all information takes shape against the backdrop of a narrative colored by subjective lenses. So we have to do our best, and we have to operate with the knowledge that the information we have is probably incomplete, and should be subject to alteration or refutation.

Interpretive Questions: What stories do we tell about what we think we know?
Each piece of information we take in contributes to the story we tell about reality. A lot of the time, that process flows in the opposite direction--we process information in a way that confirms the story we are already telling. (We can't even agree if it's a "war" [as the foreign media call it], an "operation" [Israeli media], or an "invasion" [much Arab media]. These word choices themselves are a key element of storytelling.) So we have to be aware of the stories we tell about the information we consume.

It doesn't mean we stop telling stories, but it does mean we're aware of the dynamic taking place, and that we have to be open to modifying, coloring, and reshaping our story. Just as we must take a provisional approach to our acquisition of knowledge, we need a provisional approach to our interpretive questions. In other words, we need to regard the conclusions we draw and the interpretations we make with a grain of salt. We have to maintain an awareness that our knowledge interacts with our story, and to remember that this is true of other people as well.

Finally, this means that we can and should try to listen to other people's stories--to understand how they view the same information we do and why they may look at things differently from us. Again, that doesn't mean giving up on our own narrative; but it does mean being open to listening.

Reflective Questions: How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world and ourselves?
The first two questions are ones I think many of us are aware of and probably think and talk about a lot. This last question is one that I think we need to spend more time on. With the givens that a.) We don't know everything, and b.) Our knowledge is framed in a story we tell, we can ask c.) How do we feel about it? How do we feel about what we think we know? How do we feel about the story? How do we feel about the world we inhabit, and about ourselves as its inhabitants?

Those feelings will often be complicated, contradictory, and intense. Too often we don't give ourselves the space to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, hold them, and share them. (For the educators reading: this applies equally to us as educators who have our own complex emotions, as David Bryfman notes, and to our students.) We need to give ourselves the time and space to check in with our own emotions, to identify and name what we're feeling. We need spaces among and for ourselves to reflect on those feelings (and for the educators again: we need to create those spaces for the students we serve).

On an individual level, that means giving ourselves the permission to be quiet for a while, to hear the still small voice. That can involve disengaging from social media for a bit, taking time to meditate or pray, having a conversation with a close friend, or whatever else you do to check in with yourself.

On a group or communal level, the recipe for those spaces involves some simple ingredients: commitment to confidentiality, non-judgment, speaking in the first-person, openness to sharing and listening. And asking the right question: not, "What do you think is going on?" Or, "What do you think about what's going on?" But, "How do you feel about what's going on?" Note the first two versions focus on cognitive dimensions (what do you think) while the third focuses on the emotional or affective (how do you feel). These are small but powerful word-choices--and they make an enormous difference.

Understand others, understand yourself
The questions I've laid out here are rooted in some time-tested practices of personal and group reflection, like Quaker clearness committees, Jewish musar, and American pragmatism, many of which developed in response to the sense among people generations ago that the modern world--even then--was overwhelming in information. Things have only gotten faster, more immediate, and more complicated since.

If we are to make sense of the world for ourselves, and if we are to share it with others--both of which, it seems to me, we have no choice but to do--then we need to have clear minds and open hearts. In a time like the one we're living in now, that can seem really hard. But these moments of great challenge are also moments of great opportunity--moments of learning, about ourselves and others.

As Big Bird reminds my young son in the morning, "Asking questions is a good way to find things out." Learning begins with asking questions, and good learning begins with asking good questions. If we want to learn, if we want to better understand others and ourselves, if we want to build a world of greater empathy and eventual peace, we need to formulate our questions with care, and listen attentively to the people who answer them.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson is Director of Ask Big Questions®, an initiative of Hillel International.

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