The one question that tells you all you need to know

One question. That’s all you get.

Imagine that you’ve just met someone for the first time. You want to know everything important about that person, but you don’t want to invest all that labor-intensive time that it takes to get another human to strip down to the core of his or her inner being. Most of us can be pretty high-maintenance when it comes to baring our souls.

So you get one question. That’s it. Just one.

What would your question be?

Here’s an example: My wife and I were wandering down Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue one day several years ago, peeking into shops that were way beyond our budget. They don’t call that stretch of road the Magnificent Mile for nothing.

On a lark, we popped into Niketown, an upscale purveyor of all things Nike. We didn’t intend to buy anything, we just wanted to get our swoosh on in hopes that we might boost our cool factor by being seen bopping into a Mag Mile hotspot like Niketown .

I poked around the shoes for a few minutes before an attractive young saleslady schlepped over and asked sweetly, “Can I help you find anything?” She was a generation younger, cooler, and hipper-dressed than I ever hoped to be.

“Sure,” I said. “Where do you keep your Reeboks?”

Now, she could have brayed in mockery at my stupid question or answered in a sarcastic voice loud enough for other shoppers to join the brayfest.

But she didn’t.

Instead, she leaned in close with a cautious glance to each side to make sure nobody was listening and whispered, “I’m sorry, sir. This is Niketown. We only carry Nike apparel.”

I smiled at her and said, “Thank you. You’re a nice person. I can tell. You passed the ‘hopeless idiot question’ test. You probably have a lot of friends who love spending time with you.”

As we walked back out into the street, my wife asked me, “Why do you do things like that?” It may not have been the One Question she would have asked me when we first met, but it has become the one she has asked most frequently during our long marriage.

Like the time we met a guy from Switzerland who was visiting America for the first time. I asked him, “So, how do you like our cheese?”

He stammered and cleared his throat. In another few seconds his head would have exploded from trying to find a way not to offend someone from a land that manufactures sticky yellow slices of a dairy-like imitation food product, wraps them in plastic and calls them “American cheese.”

“Don’t answer,” I said. “That was a trick question. You are a kind, tactful, diplomatic visitor. Welcome to America.”

And when he went off to do a bit of sightseeing, my wife said to me, “Seriously, what is wrong with you?” Another oft-asked question.

Of course, not everybody passes the one-question test.

Take that lady at the dinner party who insisted on turning the conversation back to religion at every turn.

Now, I have always enjoyed theological discussions with open-minded, well-informed, educated folks. But this wasn’t shaping up to be that kind of discussion. This lady seemed to be testifying to her brand, hoping to prod everybody else to testify to it.

I have never seen much point to that kind of religious discussion. After all, there is little chance that I will change your beliefs, or that you will change mine.

That leaves only two possibilities: either we will agree with each other and parrot our rapturous affirmation back and forth, or we will disagree and wait for the gates of hell to open up and swallow the other guy sometime before dessert.

So, which was she: thoughtful theologian, or cast-out-the-serpent salesman?

One question:

I asked her, “How many people are in your Heaven?”

There was a heavy moment of silence, punctuated only by my wife’s “Here-we-go-again” sigh.

“What do you mean?” the lady asked.

“Well, there are seven billion people living on the planet right now. In a century or so they’ll all join the hundred billion folks who have died throughout history. How many of them will end up in Heaven? Besides you, of course.”

She started gleefully ticking off all the losers who didn’t have a chance in hell of getting to Heaven, starting with anybody who didn’t walk into a church with the same symbol over the door that her church had.

And then all those dopes who have the right symbol, but the wrong idea about it.

And then of course all those sinners who keep doing all the things the Supreme Court keeps letting them get away with. Cavemen? No way.

In the end, it was pretty clear that her Heaven was a pretty intimate little place, where everybody wore Nikes and nibbled on American cheese.

You could probably fit them all comfortably into Wrigley Field – if it weren’t already filled with Cubs fans, who have already served their time in hell.

I can’t say that my question ended the discussion at that dinner party, but it did for me, because I had nothing more to say about it. Her answer to that one question told me all I needed to know about her as far as that topic was concerned.

But at least my wife didn’t ask me what my problem was as we drove home that night.

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