The question of “Why?” can be a driving force of innovation and learning, a source of great suffering, and a place on the edge of the unknowable.
It was Sunday afternoon, and my two-year-old granddaughter was visiting along with her older brothers. I was in my bedroom folding clothes when I heard her coming down the hall saying, “Papa?!” She rarely let me out of her sight and apparently had noticed I was missing.
When she came into the room she smiled and bounced over to where I was standing and said, “Papa, what you doing?” I replied, I’m folding my clothes, see? And I held up a pair of my pants and continued to fold them. She then asked the infamous 2 year old question, “Why?” I answered, “Because I like my clean clothes to be folded.” She countered with, “Why?” And I said, “Because they fit better in my closet.” And as you might already sense, her follow up was, “Why?” We continued this banter a few more times until I switched it up and asked, “Do you want to help Papa put away the clothes?” and she said, “Okay!”
The “Why’s” of a young child is at the epicenter of their curiosity for life. It is the first step in their own process of learning and trying make sense of how their world works. Each answer to a two-year-old’s “Why” question will inevitably produce another “Why” question. In their world they are building the foundation of knowledge they will use throughout their lifetimes. Brick by brick, each answer builds upon the last until a point of satisfaction is reached, or Papa decides to change the topic before going crazy!
This interaction was the third time in as many days where the question “Why?” had been presented to me in different ways. A few days prior to this, I was visiting a family member (I’ll call her Marie) who was recounting interactions with her siblings. Marie was upset with the apparent responsibilities they had around caretaking one of her siblings and how she keeps getting “saddled” with being the one who has to do it. She was very frustrated that her other siblings were not stepping up and how the children of the sibling were not doing more. Marie said, “Why am I the one who always has to do this stuff? This isn’t my responsibility. Why aren’t the kids taking care of this?”
As I listened to Marie talk about this situation, I could hear that she had asked this question before of others. She said, “I know, I don’t have to do it, but who else is going to do it? No one else is taking care of them.” Underneath the question “Why” was more than just complaining and frustration. I could feel that the deeper question was, “I am doing something good here, I am showing love to my sibling, and this is important and something that needs to be done, but why isn’t anyone saying thank you or appreciating what I’m doing?”
In reality, Marie loves her sibling and wants them to feel seen and loved. Ultimately, deep down, this is what Marie wants from others. She is doing the exact thing for her sibling that she desires for herself. There is a sense of sadness and longing at the root of her “Why”, and no matter what answer is given, it will never satisfy the question. Even though Marie knows she doesn’t have to do the caretaking, she cannot stop. This is fulfilling her own needs vicariously through her actions as a caretaker. She is just too afraid to really express the real source of her suffering.
I believe much of the suffering we endure comes from a negative core belief we form about ourselves at a young age. For example, if you are from a large family where your parents worked a lot and you and your siblings also worked, you may have felt isolated or ignored. Even though the reality of the situation is that there was no intended punishment or maltreatment. You may have had a huge desire for touch, to be supported, to be acknowledged, but never received it because of the dynamics of your family’s life. Your young mind could only think that there must be something wrong with you or you did something wrong to be so alone. This belief turns into suffering that you can carry with you your whole life if you don’t find a way to heal it.
The question “Why?” has been asked for thousands of years in many forms and in many languages. Some of the earliest forms of this question was likely part of Man’s curiosity about the world. Why is the sky blue? Why did the massive storm destroy my village and not my neighbor’s, am I being punished? Why was I born with no eyesight? Our crops need water, why hasn’t it rained? And the list goes on and on.
In the earliest of times of Man, we had no science to answer some of these questions. Not having a way to answer some of these unknowable questions left us in the inevitable place of acceptance of what is. The unknowable answers were a mystery and lent one to look up to the heavens for something greater that may have the answers we seek. Allowing the mystery to be given up to some form of faith that there is a higher purpose that goes beyond all human understanding.
With each passing generation, what was on the edge of the unknowable finds its way into the realm of knowing. The continued asking of “Why?” by mankind, pushes us forward toward finding answers. Sometimes the answers we get are not what we want to accept and sometimes we reach a level of agreeable satisfaction. What is important when someone asks “Why?”, is to truly listen for the real question being asked. Then, we must do our best to answer the real question or perhaps reframe it in a way that will reveal the answer organically.
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