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Soulful Sundays: What not Why

"Self-awareness is one of the biggest enemies to creativity." -Ted Dwane

"If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take." -Joseph Campbell

Children are masters at asking "why." A typical line of questioning in the life of a five-year-old goes something like the following: Why is the grass green? Because plants use stuff called chlorophyll to capture the light's energy and green light is not one of those captured colors (a parent or teacher answers). Why isn't green captured? Because the machinery of the chlorophyll can't use it as well. Why not? Because it did not evolve that way (or God did not create it that way, depending on who is answering). Why not? Why can't grass be pink? Why do we see colors anyway? Why, why, why...? Usually, the adult will just repeat the previous answer and try to change the subject.

Another common dialogue between kids and adults sounds like this: Why do I have to brush my teeth? Because that's how we keep them healthy. Why do I need to keep them healthy? So you can have your teeth when you get older to chew your food. Why don't you have to brush your teeth? I do, I just brush after you go to bed but I will brush with you now if you want. What if I don't brush them? Then you may get cavities and they may fall out. Why do I have to brush them every night? Can I brush them tomorrow instead? No, we need to brush every day, including right now. Why? Because I said so, I am the adult, I know what's best, and if you don't behave XYZ will occur and you will not like it. This is the negative reinforcement model which many parents resort to when positive reinforcement (i.e. rewards for good behavior) doesn't work. Depending on the child and the situation this either results in obedience or resistance.

We have all been on the giving and/or the receiving ends of such discussions. The first type (questions like why the grass is green) is often one of curiosity and a genuine desire to find out about the workings of the world. If you keep asking why in these cases, though, you will eventually arrive at an underlying premise of faith, which usually has something to do with the will of God or the path of evolution (oftentimes both). What we are actually interested in when we ask these questions are answers about epistemology, not ontology. We want to expand the realm of what we know, not necessarily why we should know it.

The second type of discussion, on the other hand, attempts to grasp the reason why we ought to act a certain way. In this type, we are struggling with the bounds of human freedom, limits, and motivations. Some children honestly want to understand why they are being encouraged to behave in a certain way, but what they really want to know is how much control over its importance they actually have. They keep asking why in order to delay the inevitable truth - they must behave or bad things will happen (if not in the form of reprimand, then in the form of tooth decay and gingivitis).

A similar struggle with the inevitable happens in the minds of adults. The key difference is that we lack immediate consequences for procrastination, distraction, or denial. We are largely free to ignore important decisions by continually asking why instead of acting, all the while feeling self-important while doing so. An unfortunate consequence of this tendency is avoiding difficulties by invoking loops of victimhood. When bad things occur, instead of finding solutions, we dwell on regrets, worries, and blame. The worst-case scenario is the negative cycle of blaming ourselves or others for all wrongs and never developing the agency or motivation to actually change things. Catching this tendency early is crucial to growing up.

One solution is to learn how to ask "what" instead of "why." What is a much more useful way of looking at challenges (i.e. most things that get in the way of our immature demands for comfort). What are the variables involved in the current situation? What do I know about them? What can I learn? What is at stake? What am I prepared to sacrifice? What is my level of commitment? What areas am I being unrealistic in? What is the reality? What am I prepared to live with/without? All of these help us to form pragmatic solutions (or at least the beginning of solutions) for life's struggles. Asking what keeps us in the present moment instead of being stuck in spirals of remorse and mental masturbation.

Now, I'm not saying that why is not an important question to ask, it just needs to have its place and purpose. All questions of why will eventually converge on the Big Why. Why are we here? That boils down to an admission of faith - it is so because it can be no other way. Let your faith be represented by the direction in which you sail and the confidence that there is something worthy of sailing towards. Also, let your faith be like an anchor once you have found the place you are looking for. But let your ability to ask what be the rudder that helps you navigate the waters and winds along the way. Dropping anchor during a storm (a.k.a. asking why) is a sure way to capsize your boat.

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