When Oprah Winfrey was first asked the question, the talk-show queen was left tongue-tied.
She was doing a live television interview with the late film critic Gene Siskel to promote her film “Beloved,” and he concluded by asking, “Tell me, what do you know for sure?”
“I got all flustered and started stuttering and couldn’t come up with an answer,” Oprah later wrote. But since that day, she’s never stopped posing that question—to others and to herself.
If she can borrow the question from Siskel, so can I.
In my journalism career, I have never ceased to be astounded by the generosity of strangers when I request an interview—a cold call disrupting a hot dinner, a knock on the door on a Saturday morning, a formal sit-down or a quick conversation in the back of a church or the corner of a store or the middle of a long line outside in the wee hours of a blustery Black Friday.
One minute we’ve never met, the next they’re entrusting me with their last name and age and occupation, fielding questions they can’t possibly prepare for or predict.
I don’t know exactly what to make of this great goodness except to say we crave conversation, connection, and we want to be helpful.
Whatever the reason, it fills me with gratitude and allows me to be—of all things—a student of the human race. What a fountain of youth, a lifelong adventure.
But you don’t need a press badge to witness the storytelling. When you give someone your full attention, undergirded by genuine curiosity, it will almost always be rewarded. If you can come up with good questions, you won’t be disappointed.
It is the Catholic response, the simplest and surest way to affirm the dignity of another. What’s your name? Where are you from? How long have you been here?
Every now and then I encounter a kindred spirit, a fellow interviewer masquerading in scrubs, an apron or tattered gardening jeans. My sister-in-law is among them. She works in palliative care, a difficult field to which she brings a bouquet of compassion, listening with the utmost sensitivity. Just as steadily as she amasses medical knowledge, she also patches together a more complete understanding of humanity.
This spring I’ve posed Gene Siskel’s question to a variety of people, seeking bread crumbs from the communion of future saints here on earth.
What do you know for sure?
I asked a retired bishop, who immediately spoke of service. “It empties the heart of selflessness and then fills it up with love, if you are open to that. You cannot look upon service as a drudgery, you must look upon it as a beautiful opportunity of loving, and that is all there is to it.”
I asked a well-traveled, high-profile Catholic sister. “We’re called to be God’s love in the world,” she told me. When you answer that call, she added with a laugh, prepare for “surprises.”
I asked my mom and her mom.
“I know that once the heart has stretched, you never quite are the same person,” my mom answered.
“I know for sure that through my long life, I have been guided and protected by an amazing God, who has loved and understood and forgiven me every step of my journey,” my grandma replied.
I asked a 101-year-old nun, who cast her eyes aside and flashed a half-grin before she spoke. “I know for sure that I’m going to die. That’s the only thing I know for sure.”
If I may add my own, it would be this: I know for sure we are here to lean on and learn from each other.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week.
E-mail her: at firstname.lastname@example.org
She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.