There is an exercise in two parts that I often use in group settings. I distribute a page of punctuation marks and invite participants to select the one mark that best represents their life on that particular day and why they have made the choice they did. In the second part of the exercise, I use the same sheet and ask which mark they believe best represents the world on that particular day.

How would you answer these two questions?

I have been using this activity for a couple of years now and in a wide variety of settings–at libraries, in colleges and seminaries, in community halls and retirement centers–and in different seasons throughout a volatile and often unpredictable news cycle. The responses are always fascinating. After compiling, literally, hundreds of responses, the three most common marks selected to represent individual lives have been the exclamation point (sometimes reflecting a profound zest for life and other times deep angst or anger); the question mark (uncertainty about where one’s life is headed); and the ampersand (usually expressing the positive notion that life still holds more adventures to be experienced).

In the second part of the exercise on the current condition of the world, however, the choices have been markedly more uniform. By more than a three-to-one margin, the most common mark of punctuation to be selected has been the question mark. Deep uncertainty about rapid changes in everything from technology to social norms to politics has left many people feeling uneasy. The question mark best represents this uncertainty. The fact that it is a favorite choice for both the individual and the world demonstrates the inescapable intersection of the personal with the public in terms of how we understand existence.

After each round, a conversation unfolds as to why the selections were made as they were. It has been interesting to observe how uncertainty in the world is so often transferred into one’s self-reflection. There have been occasional optimistic, even whimsical, comments—on a spring day, someone chose the asterisk because it looked like a flower and represented renewal; a person who had just celebrated her 90th birthday chose the ellipses because “there is still so much more to come”; someone chose the brackets to represent the world and parentheses to represent himself because he saw his role in life as taking the hard edges off the rigid divisiveness in the world to make the boundaries more fluid.

What can we learn from this?

While far from a strict scientific study, this activity illustrates how the world in which we live impacts the way we see ourselves. The interaction of the public with the personal shapes who we are as individuals. Self-awareness and knowledge of the world around us can deepen our empathy for others and expand our understanding of ourselves so we can become the very best of who we were meant to be.

Interest has been building for the New York City premiere of my play, Let Me Fluff Your Pillow, which opens next week. Sunday’s matinee (May 19) is already sold out, but tickets are still available for Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, May 16-18. If you are in town, come join us! Learn more about the play here. Order your tickets here.

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