Ruminations on the Essay, “The Mother of All Questions” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

The incisive essay, “The Mother of All Questions,” by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, left me reflecting back on times when I was asked questions that caught me off guard, were offensive, or merely unfriendly, and how I would have more wisely answered them if I had another chance to respond.

In her essay, Rebecca Solnit discusses questions like these that she has been asked in public forums. One is the personal question our society thinks is fine to ask perfect strangers: “Why don’t you have kids?” Having written about the choice not to have children for some time now, I too have been asked this countless times, and in my case, why I have written books, many articles and online pieces about it.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit. Photo: Adrian Mendoza

Insinuations live underneath this kind of question.  As Solnit writes and I agree, when asked the kid question, it is “indecent, because it presume[s] that women should have children, and that a woman’s reproductive activities [are] naturally public business. More fundamentally, the question assume[s] that there was only one proper way for a woman to live.”

Beyond the kid question, there are lots and lots of questions that at their heart, are not questions as much as assertions that in some way shape or form we are wrong. How do we best answer questions that have deeper contentions behind them? Solnit maintains “the art” lies in “how we refuse the question.”

The Art of Refusal

Rebecca Solnit’s approach: answer questions like these with a question.  For example, in response to, “Why don’t you have kids?” a question that would point to the underbelly could be, “Why do you ask that?”  If it were a woman being asked the question, the response Solnit uses (that I plan to use myself now) is, “Would you ask a man that?”

Or it needn’t be a question, but a comment that insinuates. Solnit gives a great example. She was being interviewed on stage by a woman who commented, “So, you’ve been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge.”  Solnit writes that the implication was that she was a “sorry specimen” and “an outlier in the herd.” Instead of directing her response to the woman on stage, she asked the audience, “Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?” The audience laughed with her knowingly, that “addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others is part of the work we’re all here to do.”

I am going to try Rebecca Solnit’s sage approach to the art of refusing the question.  I hold and will more often act on the mindset that although I can answer a question doesn’t mean I have to do so.  And while I may have an answer, it does not necessarily mean I should be asked the question in the first place.  I want to be better able to discern these two things and the deeper query in the moment, so I can artfully refuse the question with a question that shines light on that query.  At its best, the artful refusal will point toward question(s) that are truly worth asking – and answering in life.

What questions asked of you would you use the art of refusing them?

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