I was born asking why, and have never understood why the question bothers so many people. I used to drive my mother crazy, asking her why about everything; her annoyance would build until she finally snapped. My husband learned years ago at a corporate training event that asking why is aggressive and off-putting. It threatens people and stresses them out. He took it upon himself to purge to our household of the question why.
The problem is, why is so ingrained in my nature; it’s an expression of my innate curiosity. Liz Gilbert tells an audience from Oprah’s stage that not everyone has a passion they can follow, or maybe they don’t know what their one big passion is. But, she says, we all have curiosity. We can start the day being curious about something, and that’s enough. That curiosity emerges from me as the question why.
Asking why has led to amazing discoveries in science, psychology, biology, the arts. Maybe it’s fair to say that every significant human discovery has started with the question why.
It occurs to me that there are different shades of why, as Arctic cultures have hundreds of words for snow and ice. Maybe there are one hundred words for why.
Some whys are the blizzards, the whiteouts that can never be answered definitively but are still worth asking. Why am I here? Why is there so much suffering in the world? There is a spiritual discipline to being in a space where why cannot penetrate.
Other whys can lead to further exploration, but carry the danger of getting lost in unfamiliar territory or the shifting landscape of a storm. Why did I snap when that person told me that was a bad idea? Why am I such a bitch to X when I really just want them to be happy? Why do I get annoyed when people ask things of me? Those whys can lead to insight and growth, but it may be wise to bring a guide when traveling in that terrain.
Mythic wisdom tales have whys, also known as “pourquoi” stories (because it just sounds better in French). Why the leopard has spots, the turtle’s shell is cracked, or the snake has no legs. These are often origin stories of animals and their characteristics. They teach us important lessons about our own natures, as well as our relationship to the wider community of life.
There are the unknowable whys, like why did Obama’s health care plan turn out the way it did? It’s amazing that something human-made can be so complicated and unintelligible. I’m not sure if there is a point to asking these whys, except maybe to remind us of the value of humility.
Why’s cousins, the reporter toolkit of who, what, when, where and how, seem more fact-based and therefore less demanding. If those questions have a mystical dimension, it’s well hidden, whereas why wears its spiritual nature more in the open. It’s possible – and indeed expected – that a question like, how am I here? will be answered factually.
When PC corporate trainers and well-meaning psychologists pronounce why as aggressive and say it shuts people down, it would be illuminating not to stop there. Its effect on people could lead to fruitful inquiry, which would be shut down by suppressing the question altogether. Rather than avoiding and banishing why, let’s keep it in the vocabulary while acknowledging its different qualities, from a light flurry to a blizzard.