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The Most Important Question You’ll Ever Ask

On December 19th, 1944, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by a German panzer division somewhere near Belgium. He was marched 60 miles without food, water, or sleep, loaded onto an unventilated box car with 60 other soldiers, and then transported to Dresden, where he survived the fire-bombing as a prisoner in a converted meat locker called Slaughter House Five.

Vonnegut had every right to be ungrateful.

But he wasn’t.

Why?

The reason, to a large degree, has to do with an idea that he learned as a boy from his uncle, an idea that can be boiled down to a simple six-word question:

 

If this isn’t nice, what is?

 

 In speeches that he gave later in his life, Vonnegut encouraged others to use this question to calibrate their inner-compass away from apathy and hatred.  

Try it yourself. See how it feels. 

His question works two ways. First, when you come across something pleasant, the act of asking the question creates a sort of mental bookmark. You record the momentthe place, the time, the feel. The question is a silent thank you to the universe. Second, when life is less pleasant, the question works in reverse. Asking it takes you outside yourself. Out of traffic. Out of a tedious task. Out of a crowded room. Back to one of your bookmarks and into a better space.

"The question is a silent thank you to the universe"

mountains are nice

I know what some of you are thinking—that this is an oversimplification. Another gratitude platitude.

It's tempting to dismiss Vonnegut's six words as trite and sentimental.

But are they?

In the Inferno, Dante saves the worst punishments in hell for the ungrateful. Think about that. Dante had plenty of crimes to choose from (murder and child abuse come to mind) but he opted for ingratitude. It's a head scratcher at first, but give it a minute, let the idea percolate, and it starts to make sense.

What, after all, is at the root of all our vices?

Maybe Vonnegut and Dante are right. Maybe we don’t pay enough attention to gratitude.

In a world bent on reminding us what we don’t have—thick hair, tight abs, a perfect house and so on—maybe a simple gratitude mantra is just the antidote we need.

"In a world bent on reminding us what we don’t have—thick hair, tight abs, a perfect house and so on—maybe a simple gratitude mantra is just the antidote we need"

I read somewhere recently about keeping a “gratitude journal” and I gave it a try.

I journaled for about two minutes, and then the whole thing spiraled out of control. I worried about my handwriting and my spelling and other nonsense like that, which is not overly surprising if you know me.

Here's what my brain feels like when I journal:

scribble

But journaling wasn't a total waste of time. Thinking about gratitude got me thinking about Vonnegut's question. 

What I like most about his question is that it radiates outward. Unlike journaling, which focuses inward (where our neurosis lurk), Vonnegut's question directs us to open our eyes to the world around us.

"Vonnegut's question directs us to open our eyes to the world around us"

The best model I know of for this type of thinking is Basho, the 17th century haiku master. Basho is famous for his epic pilgrimages across Japan. Each step he took on his journeys was a deliberate tribute to his favorite poets and monks. He knew the value of gratitude. Thanking those who came before him gave him comfort. It taught him that he was not alone. It taught him, too, that life is like a haiku in which the bullshit (read: ingratitude) needs to be stripped away.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that every poem that Basho wrote was simply another way of asking Vonnegut's question, a 17-syllable thank you note to the universe.

Here's my favorite:

“The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers”

 

 

The Takeaway

Vonnegut's question won’t always cheer us up. It won’t always make us feel grateful. But if we’re intentional about asking it and use it as our lens, at the very least it will make us more engaged. With luck, it will open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us. 

Vonnegut's question is an invitation to actively seek opportunities for gratitude. To answer his invitation, we need to push away from routine and bump the needle out of the easy grooves. It doesn't take much. A museum. A hike. A walk on the beach. They'll all serve equally well.

"We need to push away from routine and bump the needle out of the easy grooves"

His question is also an invitation to become pilgrims. There's an obvious and time-honored connection between pilgrimages and gratitude. This is a connection we can tap into as well. Again, the idea is to break out of our default mode and step outside ourselves. Hike a section of the John Muir Trail. Go to Dublin and hoist a pint to James Joyce. Revisit the river where your grandfather taught you to fish. Leave a flower on Vonnegut's grave. Hike one of Basho's trails. At some point on your pilgrimage, remember Vonnegut and his question: 

 

If this isn’t nice, what is?

 

Life is richer if we choose to see it as a vast, interwoven adventure. Life is richer if we are guided by the right question.

 

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