Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 20, 2024

36 Questions: Choosing pain to find joy

By MICHELLE LIMPE | November 17, 2020



36 Questions — The Podcast Musical stars Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton.

Science and love are thought of as two concepts that exist virtually separate from one another. While science uses facts and data to conduct experiments for the purpose of explaining the paradigms of the world, love is a feeling that is unpredictable and unique to each person experiencing it. Never mind the scientists who try to attribute love solely to a series of biochemical reactions in our brains — we know that that isn’t all there is to love. The 36 questions, however, are an idea that brings both science and love together.

The 36 questions are a set of questions (surprise, surprise) designed by psychologist Arthur Aron in 1997 to increase intimacy between two people. The form of intimacy does not necessarily have to be romantic but can also be platonic and familial, among others. 

I stumbled across the questions from a YouTube series by Jubilee where the producers did exactly what the questions intended: They brought two strangers and had them answer the 36 questions on a first date to see if it could potentially spark a relationship. Even though the videos do not reveal if the strangers eventually became a couple, some studies have reported success, with the questions causing people to fall in love and get married.

The questions start off easy, such as “If you can have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?” or “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”, but they gradually grow deeper, requiring self-reflection to answer them. I myself have attempted to go through the questions on several occasions — with an ex and with friends — but have yet to finish all the way through. 

At first it may seem like you are just answering questions about yourself, but it does require an emotional and mental effort on your part as well in allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another person. Amid the hustle and bustle of college life, I’ve found that I haven’t had the opportunity to just reflect on myself in a while. So, going through the 36 questions again (even if I still haven’t finished them) left me feeling somewhat fulfilled.

This is the entire premise of the severely underrated 36 Questions — The Podcast Musical. When my cousin recommended it to me, all the elements of the musical — its complete auditory presentation and basis off the 36 questions — intrigued me from the very beginning. From this concept the writers were able to develop a complex storyline that delves into the cynicisms of love, leaving many unanswered questions about both the characters and love itself.

The entire musical, split into three acts, is available on Spotify. It features renowned Broadway stars Jonathan Groff (you may know him as King George from Hamilton or Kristoff from Frozen) and Jessie Shelton as a separated couple who are using the 36 questions in an attempt to salvage their marriage from Shelton’s lies and deceptions. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but the ending isn’t all fairytales and happily-ever-after.

Of course, with musicals, there are various elements that go into creating a full sensory experience for the viewer, complete with special effects, makeup, costumes, sets and much more. But in this case the writers and producers only had our ears to please, executing it spectacularly by setting the premise of the musical around recording voice memos. 

I have to admit that when I first listened to the musical, I didn’t instantly take a liking to it because the music seemed to be an unorthodox blend of different genres — blues, pop, indie rock. But no musical is perfect, and I gradually learned to value the music and find comfort in it. Beyond the melodies, I learned to appreciate the lyrics and dialogue that revealed the characters’ darker, complex pasts, explored the realities of love and illustrated that not all matters in life are black or white.

I re-listened to the entire musical while writing this piece and was reminded once again of why I love it so much. Even though I have listened to the musical a few times before, there were two key times that set it apart. When I first heard it, I would say that I was in love. And the second time was (you guessed it) when I had finally fallen out of love. Both those times, I did feel some sadness, but even more than that, I felt joy upon discovering something new about myself and my approach to love. We know that love is a powerful emotion and can shape how one views the world, which was no different for me when I listened to the musical in those two different emotional states.

At first, I was rooting for the couple to get back together and give their love a second chance, especially when you could so obviously tell that they were still in love. I hoped for that classic rom-com moment, reminiscent of 10 Things I Hate About You or Say Anything, when the wronged party decides to forgive the other after a big romantic gesture. To some extent the fairy tales and stories of princes and princesses always led me to believe that if two people loved each other, then that’s all that mattered and second chances are unlimited.

But sometimes that’s just not reality. No matter how much two people want to make something work, maybe they just are not meant to be. Even the protagonists ultimately had to admit that no matter how much they did not want to let go their efforts were fruitless. All that they could do in the end was accept life and be satisfied with the closure and peace of mind that they had tried their hardest.

It seems kind of paradoxical in a sense that in order to find joy you need to choose pain. Listening to the musical again more recently gave me the consolation that life can get better. Especially during the pandemic, the message still stands that something that seems horrible now comes with so many hidden blessings that will make life better... we just aren’t aware of it yet. But think of all the obstacles you’ve faced in your life before. And think of how much better your life may be now. One day we’ll all be able to look back and understand why the pandemic had to pass, just as we’ll realize why we had to fail that class or lose a friend or be heartbroken to get to where we are now.

So, I invite you, if you have spare time, to get on Spotify and play 36 Questions — The Podcast Musical. I promise it’s a really easy listen. And if you have even more time, find someone to go through the 36 questions with or go through them by yourself. Maybe, just maybe, it will give you the space and time you need to look back on your life and reflect on your experiences and approach to love. 

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