The Answer Within: Anyone in There?

11/28/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

In our modern age, we've all been told that to find the real answers, we need to look "within." It's a message we see in magazines, hear over and over on television, and, of course, have thrust into our consciousness with the endless torrent of self-help books published every year. Even that concept -- self-help -- is an idea all the generations before us would have found both bizarre and blasphemous.

But culture manifests itself all over, even at the deli counter. I was waiting to place an order when I heard a painful whine behind me. A little girl didn't know what she wanted for lunch. A well-meaning mother asked her in a dozen different ways what her preference was. Would she like this? Would she like that? Remember when you had it before? The sweet thing just didn't know and soon she was crying. The mother knelt down near her (the child was quite little) and talked to her in a gentle way about finding the answer within her heart and tummy.

I thought that was simultaneously sweet, amusing, and intriguing, and also impossibly patient. Of course, I think the mother was trying to teach her child a valuable skill, one well worth learning. And she probably did a lot of other things that were kind, reassuring, and nurturing for her daughter.

But that child became so frustrated and tired trying to figure it out by herself that she screamed, "I DON'T KNOW!" loud enough to wake up the cashiers in the front of the store. Poor little thing just wanted someone to tell her, "Here's your lunch, honey..." This made me wonder if perhaps we are overdoing it a bit. Maybe within isn't the only way to go?

Are there always answers within? Indeed, are there any there for any of us? And if there are, do we really want to hear them?

I thought of all the times I tried to figure things out for myself and wound up in ditches double my reach. I can still remember at least a couple of times looking entirely to myself -- the "deeper within" -- with important questions, and the "deeper within" shouting the answer back up to me: "Fool!" The answers I've received that have been of enduring value have mostly come from others with greater experience, wisdom, or grace.

On the other hand, I can also remember having moments of utter certainty in the face of chaotic circumstances, times when I absolutely knew the right thing to do. I may have been scared or intimidated or concerned, but somehow I knew.

So what our loving mother was doing at the deli counter was, in my mind, at least theoretically sound. It is good to teach a child how to rely on himself to some degree. But is it always right? Isn't it also necessary to teach that child what is right and wrong, what is expectable, and how the world works so he or she can make proper choices, can function socially, can be healthy? Isn't it necessary to have some leadership, even if it's as simple as pointing out which mushrooms to avoid in the woods? Or which foods to pick out at the deli counter?

As usual, I mentioned it to my husband and I asked him if he thought we could find the answers within ourselves. And, also as usual, my pithy Montanan said, "'pends what you mean by 'answers.'"

I thought about that for days. When people are looking for answers, are they actually seeking out the truth? Or are they looking for corroboration for their impulses or desires?

The need to go to oneself may be in fact the way one satisfies the need to get one's own desires met. Often, that leads us down the road to perdition, hence the old proverb -- "A physician who treats himself has a fool for a doctor."

I asked another Montanan friend, Ed Johnson, a really bright fellow who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, whether he thought it was possible to rely on oneself for the answers and whether looking within was all one needed.

At first he said, "I'll have to dig deep within myself for that one..." And then he referenced a National Geographic article he recently read on the teenage brain.

"It turns out," he smiled, "that they're not nuts. They have a different risk-reward equation. The teenager understands consequences, but they choose the potential-perceived reward and ignore the risks."

Because of this and other anomalies -- genetic issues, early childhood difficulties -- he felt that looking within could be unreliable until there was full neurologic development.

I had to agree with him but I take it one step further. Without real health and a full emotional, psychological, and physical maturity, we're looking for complex answers from an abacus when we require far more advanced equipment. Over the years of working with individuals in crisis of one kind or another, I have found that those who relied entirely on their own "feelings" or "inner voice" wound up in pain, confused, and rudderless because they had never received the kind of guidance, nurturing, or education (moral or emotional) that would give them a proper reservoir of answers instead of a headache from feedback.

Which leaves me with this understanding: Answers are not innate. In fact, we are not born knowing very much. Children (and young animals) left to their own devices are perfect examples of what happens when we do not have the benefit of what others have learned, of ancestral wisdom. Those kids (and critters) either die or become socially and morally irredeemable. The hard-wiring for relationships is simply never created.

Answers are learned; sometimes they are intuited based on both spiritual and emotional input, sometimes inspired. But we all need road maps to start with.

People with a good inner compass have almost always been taught how to find true north, where to go and then precisely what to do to and when they get there. We may be born with the capacity, but not the skill. That is an important distinction. Unless a person is given the resources fairly early in life, the only answer he or she will find when they look within is either a resounding silence or, worse, an echo.

Which brings us back to my husband's point: Do we want answers or do we want truth? They are not always the same thing.

Ultimately this is about the search for truth. Unfortunately most people wind up in a search for what they want. Desire leads us down one road and often truth leads us down another.