Personal Agenda, Book One: Introduction

The Questions We Ask

Most people are searching for something. That it might take you years to lay a finger on it and say, “This!” usually does not make the search less frantic. Some people look for ways to make money, or ways to be liked. Others are looking for a place where, after a long journey, they can sit back and for the first time in their lives declare, “I have arrived.” Other people (or the same people looking for all aforementioned things) are searching for a person – someone with whom they can spend at least a portion of their life, and with whom they can search for other things, or the same things other people search for.

One universal aspect of all these searches is that questions are asked. A significant number of these questions relate to the person asking the questions – each person is driven by instinct to gather as much information as possible about him or herself, and for related reasons similar information about other people.

A few familiar questions: What do I look like? Am I pretty or ugly? Am I smart, or am I a bit of an idiot? Am I an “engineer” or a “lawyer” or an “artist”? Do I like pizza? How do I like my pizza? How do other people like their pizza? What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to be rich? How rich? Would it be okay if I don’t own the biggest house on the street? Do I want a car or a motorcycle? How should I wear my hair? Do I like the colour pink? What kind of music do I like? Do I believe in God? Is it good enough just to go to church every now and then? For which political party do I vote? Do I watch sports, and if so, who or what team do I support? Who are my friends? What kind of person do I like? Why do I like certain kinds of people? What types of people like me, and what are their reasons for liking me? What do I do in my spare time?

And these are just the questions that came to mind while I was changing CDs. I can add dozens more. And then you as the reader can look at the list and say, “Okay, but you’ve missed a few.”

Does everybody think about these things all the time? No. Some of these questions may require that we get comfortable for a while to consider possible answers, other things we just know. The important thing is, how we answer these questions determine how we perceive ourselves – on our own, in the privacy of our own spaces, and also when we’re around other people.

Many of us also find ourselves at one point or another in unfamiliar places where nobody knows us. This forces us to introduce ourselves to a crowd of strangers: “Hello, I’m (X). I like pop music. I would like to own a bookstore one day. I don’t like onions on my pizza, and I go to church once a month.”

The questions we ask ourselves, the ways we respond to them, how we introduce ourselves to strangers and how people react to us ultimately determine whether you hang out with other pizza eaters or not; whether you believe your soul is sorted the day you die; whether or not and with whom you may one day produce children; and how you spend your free time. Again, just a few examples.

This brings me to the book you’re now staring at. This is the result of my own efforts – especially during the past four years on the island of Taiwan – to formulate a few questions and match them up with some corresponding answers.

Who I am in the context of the wider world is not of any great importance. I am indeed a phantom, who will never meet more than a few of the people who will read these words. (Just as well! If I had to wait until I was known to more than ten people before I would even think about starting this project, I would be sitting on my couch right now watching TV.)

To a considerable extent I am just an ordinary man. Some of the things I have experienced, other people have experienced as well and will still be experienced by many others. Problems I have had, and that I am still going to have, is similar to the problems that millions of people have to cope with every day. Many who will read these pages have also had other and perhaps more interesting experiences; or more, and more serious problems than I will ever have. There are also people who may never be as happy as I have been, or may still be in the future. Others may speak of exactly the opposite.

What binds us all is that we have to ask ourselves certain questions at one time or another. Questions to which answers must be found, even if it takes a lifetime.

(Sunday, 18 May 2003)