Gretchenfrage

In the final year of high school, most Luxembourgish students have the pleasure of reading and discussing Goethe’s Faust, a masterpiece from the 19th century. Since my memory of Faust is a little blurry, allow me to quote the following from Wikipedia in order to explain what it’s about:

“Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend, based on the historical Johann Georg Faust.

The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.”

“Highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life” − the issue seems to be a tale as old as time itself, known and experienced by many. That isn’t going to be the subject of this post, however.

In Faust, there’s another topic that has particularly resonated with me over the past few years, the so-called “Gretchenfrage“. It occurs when Gretchen, the woman Faust seduced with the devil’s help, asks the protagonist “wie hast du’s mit der Religion?”, meaning “how do you feel about religion?”. The answer to this question is crucial to her, given that Faust has made a secret deal with the devil, which is definitely a red flag for her. Apart from the obvious meaning, a Gretchenfrage is a question that goes straight to the core of an important matter and is generally unpleasant since the answer to it can be highly uncomfortable.

I recently noticed that the Gretchenfrage is not just an abstract subject matter from a book I was once forced to read (and actually ended up enjoying, thank you very much!), but a recurring theme in everyone’s life, which gains importance along the way of growing up. Being on the same page as people we want to keep in our lives gets more important the older we get. In high school, it’s all fun and games: we’re young and (relatively − I never was 😉 ) careless and it doesn’t really matter all that much if everyone thinks the same way about various topics (probably because the most common topics in high school are the newest video game consoles, the coolest spots to have lunch at and what to do over the weekends). Also, if all else fails, everyone has at least one thing in common: the oh so “awful” teachers, originators of the worst assignments and the most impossible tests (→ sarcasm, by the way).

A Gretchenfrage is indeed a question we desperately need the answer to, yet we’re terribly afraid to ask it. Not necessarily because we fear to ask the question, but because we’re not ready for the answer, because it can be a deal breaker. The Gretchenfrage can mark the end of a shared journey between friends, lovers, employers and employees, and probably other relations that are currently slipping my mind. The outcome determines where people go from there. At best, both people are on the same page about the subject at hand. At worst, it’s the end of the journey. A neutral answer, meaning that at least one person is flexible or non-fixated on a particular outcome, would also be fine.

Obviously, the Gretchenfrage is very important in romantic relationships, as portrayed in Faust. While religion is an important topic, it hasn’t been much of an issue in my life since most people I’m surrounded with aren’t religious people. Other, more important topics are people’s plans for the future. What are their aspirations? Do they want to get married someday? Have kids? Settle down? Live in a house? Travel the world? Prioritise their career? Move to a different country? Do they prefer dogs or cats ?
(Interestingly, I have met a few people who feel very strongly about this. Personally, I don’t consider myself a dog person, nor a cat person. I’m most definitely an animal person. Although I’d like to add that I definitely prefer furry pets over pets such as reptiles or fish…)

This post matches the reflections I wrote down in my rant about the universe. It’s so important to feel the same way when it comes to core values and beliefs to make sure there’s a basic compatibility.

This goes for friendships as well. Sadly, I parted ways with a few close friends over the past years. I had known all of them since high school and shared a great deal of experiences with them. Then we hit a rough patch and realised we no longer saw eye to eye about things, to the point where it was probably best to go our separate ways. All of these relationships came to an end at a point where I was sitting across from them, thinking “who the hell is this!? Has he/she always been this way? How come I’ve never noticed before?” (and I’m quite sure my former friends were thinking the same thing about me).

funny-500-Days-Of-Summer-feelings

[Source]

I used to love the movie 500 Days of Summer and I find the above quote quite adequate, both for friendships and romantic relationships that have expired. (I’m aware now that the movie’s packed with complexities that play a role in modern relationships and I have to admit that I adjusted my perspective on the story everytime I watched the movie. I should probably watch it again.)
While I don’t talk to most of the people that are no longer a part of my life, I still care about them. I like seeing them happy, even though their absence from my life, combined with the memories of the good times we once shared, stings a little.

To wrap this up, let’s go back to the Gretchenfrage one last time. If there’s something that matters deeply to you, don’t keep it in. If you feel strongly about a subject that is likely to play a role, tell people about it, and do it sooner rather than later. Pretending it’s not important and ignoring it until it blows up in your face isn’t the smart way to get the job done and it’s definitely a source of anxiety. If the Gretchenfrage causes the relationship to break, or prevents it from even starting, so be it. It’s probably going to hurt, but it’s also for the best. The Germans have a pretty accurate proverb for this:

“Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende.”

This roughly means “a painful break is better than drawing out the agony” and I believe this is something we can all agree with.

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