Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
April 2013 - Volume 13, No. 4
The question “Why?”
I recall some years ago, a client asking for help getting her 11-year-old son to clean his room. I asked her (a somewhat cocky question), “Does he know you want him to clean his room?” “Of course he does,” she answers. “How does he know?” “I’ve told him to.” “What do you say to him?” “I say, ‘why can’t you clean your room?’” “Ah, I think I know the source of your problem.”
I went on to explain that the true or deeper meaning of her question was “give me an explanation of why you can’t clean your room.” Since the subconscious mind is much more precisely oriented semantically, the only real answers are ones that explain why he can’t - such as perhaps “I’m stupid” or “Maybe I’m crippled” - thus effectively sustaining him against cleaning his room. The more you ask the “why” question, the more you reinforce the outcome of a messy room. I advised her to just tell him to clean his room. And it worked - his room became half clean. (Any parent of an 11-year-old knows thats a miracle in itself.)
There are a number of question adverbs in our English linguistic arsenal. In my own personal and professional use of language, I divide them into two distinct categories. 1) Those that generally are used to elicit data, and 2) that singular one, “why,” which is generally meant to elicit purpose or justification. In much standard discourse, it’s the fault finding question.
Let’s look at the first list - the question adverbs that are meant to elicit data, such as, what, where, who, when, how. These are the primary questions of the detective, or the court room. What happened (what are the details)? How did it happen (i.e. by what process)? When... who...where...? These are the scientist’s questions - the ones by which he or she probes the secrets of the universe - both macro and micro. One of the purposes of good education is to teach how to ask questions - questions by which each of us can better,participate in the “getting things done” aspect of adult personal and community life.
Then there’s the “why” question. I’m as tempted as anyone else to misuse it. I have learned that when the “why” is on the tip of my tongue, I’ll look for one of the other question adverbs to take its place - which usually will make it a more honest and/or less guilt-charged question. Instead of asking “why did you do that?” ask “what was going on that you did...?” A young person can especially feel the difference.
It’s easy to understand the almost diabolic power of the “why” question by imagining a prosecutor trying to nail a defendant in court. On the surface, the question is asking for information, but underneath (where the greater power lies) it’s meant as a preemptory imposition of guilt. It would be more honest to ask “what was happening that....?”It still can impute guilt, but without the full ‘cornering’ power of a “why.”
It is the purpose of our Courts, by way of skillful Prosecution and Defense, to elicit the fullest truth of the matter at hand so that the Law be applied correctly. The skill of the Trial is the skill of asking questions.
Then there’s the questioning child. It seems children are born with a natural curiosity about the world, and when the environment is safe, they relish the freedom to question. Each of us who are parents know well that youngstercidal power-induction question “why?” He or she lumps all their curiosity into that one single adverb that encompasses the entire range of their newfound question-power. “Mommy, why is there air?” “Why do I always have to wash both sides of my hands?” What’s sad is somehow they will learn from us to not question - an outcome that becomes most frightening in national election years. I hear from elementary school teachers that the imposed curriculum burden rarely leaves time these days to encourage the real learning that comes from taking time to question things.
“Why” seems to be the darling question of the pop-psychological community - and in turn of a society that longs for the titilation of “why” investigations. In a previous time, mature news organizations took great pride in ‘getting the details’ and even taking time to get them well. Nowthe competition among news outlets, especially if it’s a ‘tragedy’ is rather to “get the psychological background” ASAP so we can know “why”. We don’t care as much about the details, we want the “juicey.”
When I want to ask “why” is this so, I’ll reformulate the question as “for what purpose?” Then I can think more clearly about the situation, and in this case emerge with the (sad) understanding that people want a way to distance themselves from the emotion, and specifically the pain, of a given tragic event. Yes, we love tragedy - just look at the late evening local news, where tragedy becomes carefully orchestrated entertainment. It sells carpet and cars, even used cars. Giving juicy “why” insights helps us keep it from becoming too personal - we like to see others suffer, but keep ourselves protected enough to still get the commercials. Yes, local TV newscasts and grade B movies share the same cultural level function.
Psychology itself falls into a similar trap - we figure if we can find the cause of something, we can fix it, or at leasts fix blame. A frequent ‘whipping boy’ of the mental health profession is the patient’s family-of-origin. This can be the specific behaviors experienced, as well as what we now call genetic heritage. Ask any parent of a “mental patient” about their own pervasive feeling of shame. It is true, that a great deal of psychological healing can come from coming to grips with one’s particular life history. But to transpose over that the “why” question, for fault-finding purposes, often does more damage than good. Both the ‘patient’ and those surrounding, maintain a predisposition to ‘look back’ for an explanation - which to me sometimes has little to do with moving forward into a ‘life.’ No matter where I come from, the epitome of mental health lies in the affirmation that “I am (now) responsible.” I can better know my past, but I don’t blame for it.
Yes, our ‘psychological culture’ would rather indulge in juicy stories than face ourselves as we are and move onward into lives of our own.It’s much easier to insist that others be responsible than to take responsibility ourselves. (There are exceptions, especially for those prone to guilt attribution - which also blocks one from moving forward in life.)
The “why” question is the purpose question. That’s important. If you want to go deep into the fullness of “why” - read the Old Testament. The Book of Psalms is full of it. It’s the question of suffering. It is the paramount “God Question.” It is the question with no final answer. (Ask any person of Jewish heritage.) Along with the presence of God, there’s (always?) the absence of God. It seems we are left to live struggling in between. The assumed ‘benefit’ of a strict dogmatic religion is that there are answers that are meant to overpower this uncertainty. It’s the home of those apparent ‘blessed’ who never have to witness the collapse of those certainties - even though the Bible itself is full of them. For many, the Bible is “the Book of Certainties” - and ultimate answer to all the “why” questions. For me it’s also the opposite; it is the ultimate Book of Uncertainties. It is both the fullness, and even more the emptiness, of the “why” question, the God Question. Strangely, that’s why I trust it.
“Why” is the accusation (fault finding), or justification, or purpose question - all three. Use it carelessly, and it will occupy you with inane bathos, keeping you safe from any real involvement in the world of human struggle and victory. Use it from a place of deep fullness of heart, and it can lead you, as do so many answerless questions, into the realms of transcendence, into a true fullness of life.
So be diligent in asking the questions - all of them.
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