The Most Terrifying Question I Was Ever Asked

A few years back while participating in a weekend workshop on -wait for it – love and intimacy, one of the exercises called for all of the attendees to pair off with someone in the group and sit face-to-face.

I scanned the room of about 70 people a bit nervously, wanting to seem random in who I asked to join me in the exercise. But let’s face it: Nothing is truly random, particularly in a scenario like this.

My mind and eye made a rapid but reasoned choice, and I approached a pleasant looking fellow about my height wearing glasses and a nice smile.

“Hi. Wanna be my partner for this?” I asked awkwardly.

“Sure, why not,” he replied good-naturedly. His name was Phillip.

We found two chairs in a corner of the room, situated them appropriately and took our seats, facing each other.

Man and woman sitting face to face
My Most Terrifying Question. Photo: Charles Deluvio

After everyone had settled into their seated, partnered positions and the room was quieting down, the moderator spoke.

“Taking turns,” she said, “each of you will ask your partner one question; the same question. The person questioning will then listen quietly to what the respondent says. The one posing the question is to say absolutely nothing. He or she is only to witness and listen while the respondent takes as much time to answer as he or she needs.”

It was then that I felt a slight yet noticeably heightened level of anxiety in the room. Then the room fell silent.

The moderator continued. “The question you will ask is…”

“What do you want?”

A spectrum of sounds suddenly broke the silence: a couple of gasps, a chuckle or two, an “Oh, wow,” and “Oh, no.” The one I heard the loudest were the groans.

But the majority of the group was quiet.

I was one of the quiet ones.

The question stunned me like headlights, and I was the deer. I could feel my eyes growing wider with a rising feeling of panic. In that moment, I stopped breathing.

Photo of deer in road looking startled as I was by a terrifying question
A Simple Question and I Feel Like a Deer in Headlights. Photo: Steven Pahel

Phillip then spoke. “Would you mind answering first?”

Grateful for the distraction of his voice – and without thinking – I said, “Sure.”

We collected ourselves, re-positioning our chairs just a bit with our new awareness of the question, knowing somehow we would need to lean in for this one.

Then Phillip looked me in the eye.

“What do you want?” he asked.

I looked away from his eyes quietly, staring off across the room, suddenly cast into a thought, an idea I had never had before, never before in my life had entertained.

And it scared the hell out of me.

I began to cry.

Facing this question threw a kind of spotlight on me, as though I were standing awkwardly on a stage and all eyes were on me, waiting to hear what I had to say. I wanted to back the hell off the stage, stealthily and invisibly, away from the spotlight’s searing glare.

My tears abated as I composed myself.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Everything and nothing?” I continued, trying to ease the tension with some humor.

I went on. “That’s a terrifying question. Maybe that’s the idea,” I chuckled.

Phillip was a trooper. He was respectful and still, his eyes steadfast upon me with a kind of gentle reverence.

The longer I sat with the question, I could feel something akin to boldness start to rise slowly, deeply within me.

“What I want,” I finally said, “Is hard to put into words. I want to say a bunch of words, and none seem adequate. But I’ll say them. Fulfillment, love, balance, contentment, a sense of meaning in my life, joy, connection, fun.”

As I spoke, the list grew with greater specificity.

“Good friends, good health, the right lover/partner/friend for me. I want to be surrounded by beauty, both aesthetic and natural. I want to be resilient, to be creative, to make choices that afford me easy learning, if that makes any sense.”

The more I said, the more I realized the value of being asked -and answering-this question out loud. To someone who was listening. I started to feel worthy, visible, important, like a warrior.

I was finding, speaking, and hearing my voice. Finally.

“I want to live in a cottage with a welcoming kitchen and an art studio and a garden full of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. I want a dog and a cat. I want to travel. I want good traveling companions. I want a place where I can gather with people and play board games a couple of times a month. I want to dance.”

Dream Cottage and Garden
Dreamy Cottage, Garden and Small Studio

I paused.

“You know, Phillip, I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. I’m happy with my response.”

Phillip smiled at me.

“My turn,” he said.


10 thoughts on “The Most Terrifying Question I Was Ever Asked

    1. Hi Roy,
      Thank you for your comment! I met Sue Imperial the first day of first grade and we have been friends ever since. I may not be completely objective but she is a loving, insightful, and brilliant person and friend. Her voice is a powerful addition to the blog. I hope you stay tuned for more – and share.

    2. Roy, this is Sue Imperial. I’m so happy that you like the piece. It was a great experience to write it, deeply personal, yet I felt it would strike a chord in a lot of people. I’m so heartened you connected with it. Cheers!

  1. I liked this post a lot! But I am going to show off my utter ignorance here (even though I’m a blog-writer myself!). The post e-mailed to subscribers says “by Julia Hallisy,” but from the comments I assume that it was actually written by Julie’s friend Sue. How can we know who the author was? (or maybe it doesn’t matter?) I’m sure the answer is in front of my nose but for some reason I’m flummoxed.

    1. Hi Paula,
      This was absolutely written by Sue Imperial – we are working on adding her as an author to appropriately credit the post! Thanks so much for reading!

    2. Hi Paula, Our webmaster extraordinaire James Marshall Berry figured it out – author names are up and running. Thanks for pointing it out – it was easy to overlook! Julia

        1. Hi, Paula! Sue Imperial here. Yes, Julia and I thought it would be a great idea as well! We share a long history as close friends, we hold similar values, we both love Sonoma County, and we complement each other very well with our life experiences… we are greatly looking forward to our collaboration, and thank you so much for acknowledging it! Stay tuned!

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