Three famous questions will help to cope with tough-to-understand situations

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By Bob Mueller

I was required to major in philosophy during seminary. At first I resisted. But the more I understood that a philosopher is a person seeking wisdom or enlightenment, the more value I discovered in philosophy. 

I studied and learned about Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, who provided his three famous questions to ask when we are dealing with difficult things. The three questions that deal with our questioning of our assumptions are:

• What can I know?

• What should I do?

• What may I hope?

One of the challenges of my life has been dealing with my mother’s Alzheimer’s.

She has had this illness for many years and is now under hospice care for late stage Alzheimer’s at Episcopal Church Home in Louisville. 

Using Kant’s three famous questions has been a very helpful way for me to cope with this situation.

What can I know?

I know that death is inevitable. I know that watching my mother die a painfully slow death, a death that diminishes her both mentally and physically on a daily basis, is difficult to witness. I know that this death is not one that either she or I would have chosen for her but that there is learning for both of us in this anguishing process. I know that nursing homes are problematic and even the best leave much to be desired. I know that angels take care of the aged, feeble, cranky, or comatose residents with patience, steadfastness, tenderness, and compassion.

I know that I am not the same person I was before beginning this final piece of my mother’s journey. I am much more humble and aware that the present moment is a gift to graciously be received. I know that it has been my wish for many years to be able to see the whole of my mother’s life from a vantage point more spacious than only that of a son and I am so grateful this desire has been fulfilled beyond any vision I imagined.

What should I do?

This is the paradox. What I should do is to be more and do less, for out of my being comes the doing. It is also the key for me to unlock the “what I can know.” My most lucid moments come riding on the sounds of silence. It is then that I awake from fear and separateness and am able to let go of the judgment I put on Mom’s circumstances. It is only then that I can even entertain the notion that we are given circumstances required for our awakening: that things that seem so unfair can eventually make sense or not. Most of the time, I vacillate between positions of darkness and light minute by minute, struggling to pay attention to all of the synchronistic patterns that continue to appear.

What can I hope?

Recently I thought about my parents and what they thought of me as their child. I have such a keen sense of the wonder of family, of former generations, of the contribution that each of us makes. I recalled a fond memory of my Mom playing the organ at Church and then teaching her three children to play the piano and her delight in that role. So many songs remind me of her. One of my favorite was, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” That is what I hope for all of us – that our light can and will shine.

Using Kant’s three questions has really helped me to review my world and build new assumptions and insights. We can see the positive illusions we unconsciously lived by before any changes occurred. We reexamine. We decide what we believe now. We begin to examine what we can stand on now. 


Bob Mueller is the vice president of development at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.