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Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Implication of the question, "Why?"

I've been pondering something for several days now, and because of the comments on my previous post, I've decided to tackle the issue. It's something I've noticed for a long time, and in fact, I finally understand an instruction received when I first began working in adolescent psych during my college years.

During the week of our new employee orientation, the trainer, who was the Patient Advocate, explained to us that every question beginning with the word "Why?" was a reasonable question and should be answered. At the time I didn't really understand why we needed to be offered this information. To my way of thinking, if someone was asking any question, it was a real question.  Why was it necessary?

Therein is the problem. Look at the last sentence of the above paragraph. It begins with the word "Why?" followed by a question mark. And in reading that sentence, it seems to presuppose a negative answer, and perhaps to the degree of the implication by the query that his direction to us WASN'T necessary!

Yet, I would argue, it was necessary, as I have come to learn. 

Over the years I've often asked the question "why?" which was an implication of my own presuppositions that, sadly, assumed either there wasn't a satisfactory answer, or none at all.  Of course, I have also asked many questions knowing that in order to further my knowledge of a subject, I had to ask for the reason, thus, necessarily used the very intelligent query, "Why?"

Still, it seems that overall, if that question is used, no matter what the interlocutor's intent, it is read as a negative, or even as a criticism.

I can give several examples of this:

"Why are you doing that?" ~ May imply that one is doing something wrong - tone or facial expression would give this question a positive connotation.

"Why doesn't the Church allow women to become priests?"   ~ Oh, just go to an apologetics forum with that question, stated just like that. Just WATCH the responses go crazy and descend into the assumption that the person making the query is attacking the Church!  It's worse than yelling "Fire" in a crowded theatre, or "Bomb!" in the security line at the airport on the day before Thanksgiving.

"Why is this happening?"  On the surface, this seems to imply a negative. Is it? Or might it be reasonable to ask?

"Why do we need to learn this?"  I can think of a lot of positive answers to that question. Is the question itself negative, or is the person asking it seeking a real answer?

"Why is this important for us to know?"

"Why is there suffering in the world?"

"Why am I earning this degree?"

"Why do you wear your hair in that style?"

"Why are you wearing that outfit?"

"Why do we have to get up so early?"

In all of the above questions, it is very easy to read the negative into it and assume the person asking the question is asking it not out of a sincere desire for knowledge, but rather, out of argument. I've made the same mistake with people, and have often had to chide myself, remembering the instruction given to me by that trainer long ago.  Yet I can't seem to stop assuming that if that question is asked, it must be coming from a standpoint of negativity or even dissent! It's very easy even to fall into the trap of assuming that someone who asks, "Why?" is looking for an argument.

It's a curious thing, isn't it?  

I know someone who left the Church and became an Evangelical Pastor because of how his own "Why?" was not answered.  (Yes, there's more to his leaving than that, but that was where his journey out began.)

My friend told me several times, that he was raised Catholic. He remembers Vatican II, and the disciplines that changed.  He explained to me that one day, eating meat on a Friday was a mortal sin. The next day, it wasn't anymore. (This is how he reported it...I'm not making a judgment in this case as to whether or not this was true.)  Of course he was confused and asked the Priest who was teaching his class WHY this was the case.  He had an honest question, and honestly assumed there was an answer to it. He was not being snide or smart.  He was confused.

He said that the Priest snapped at him, told him to sit down, shut up, and stop asking questions.  (Again, this is how my friend reported it. Please don't go into "defense" mode in the combox...focus on the topic at hand.)

You see, my friend asked a reasonable question:   "Why?"

For some reason, the predominant opinion of the public, whenever they are hit with the question "Why?" they assume it implies a negative or arises out of argument.

It doesn't - well, not usually, anyway. Certainly the question may ARISE out of a negative situation, but in its essence, the question belongs to reason; it is asking for a REASON for something, and often assumes a positive answer.  In the questions I posed above, certainly non-verbal communication such as body language, facial expression, and vocal tone will help the person being asked understand the intent of the person asking the question, but not always. Some people have a very flat affect. Some just like to yank people's chains.  Others may go around with perpetual scowls and a dark cloud overhead, but it can't be assumed that they are being snide or contentious.

This being a human being stuff is complicated, isn't it?  And it's even harder when limited to the written medium.

My post from a couple days ago was misread by many people, and I agree that the overall tone was a bit melancholic. However, that tone doesn't define my overall interior attitude, and in fact, I was disappointed that my own "Why?" queries were taken out of context of the overall post and interpreted as self-condemning or even worse, condemning of God. Yet I understand why that was taken out of context, for I asked the question, "Why?".

What I was doing in that post was engaging my reason with rhetorical questions. which ultimately were an expression of my prayer to God.  Why am I getting this degree?  I don't know, I don't understand.  The path is not clear for me, nothing is obvious.  Thus....WHY? Would anyone seriously argue that I not offer these questions? After all, there are all sorts of people in my family and friends who have often asked me "Why" I'm getting a degree in Pastoral Theology. I have never had an answer for them for I don't know that answer. Nor have I assumed their questions posed to me to be in the negative;  rather, they expect a positive response.  Their attitudes only change when I express a LACK of an answer, but those who have faith just shrug and say, "God will reveal it."  (Those are also the people who would like to pursue the same degree or field!)  :-)

Making that "why" statement, contrary to seeming popular opinion, is not indicative of an attitude of negativity, but rather, actually touches on a very human principle:  when we are confronted with the deepest issues in life, we ask questions. God expects those questions and has answers for them. This is why it is REASONABLE to ask "Why?" and doesn't presume wastefulness of education, for example, or a lack of answers. Rather, it presumes that there ARE answers even though they may not be readily apparent.

Someone who is asking the question "Why?" is seeking to go deeper;  they are seeking Truth.

I understand now why the Patient Advocate had to point out the reasonableness of that question, and I understand many more things that I was not afraid to pursue simply because of the answers I received when I had the courage to ask the question, "Why?"  In some cases, I learned more because there WASN'T a satisfactory answer, which led me to dig deeper, go further, and amass more knowledge.

"Why?" opens doors. It doesn't slam them shut.

Challenge  yourself.  Consider all the "Why?'s" you've asked in your life and check your reaction when someone around you begins a question with that query. Think about your gut-reaction when that question is asked, and how it is tempered when you then take in the other cues surrounding it.  You may actually be surprised at your own assumptions and how wrong they may be.

In my personal experience, I'm one to assume the negative, too, and have often had to quell my response to people by remembering that instruction from years ago. It has caused me to respond with reason to a question asked in reason, and it has often been the very thing the caller or customer needed to know. Perhaps they did ask out of  a bad situation, but in responding to their need, the situation was resolved...through reason.

Think about it. "Why?" isn't a bad word. It's perhaps the BEST word in the English language! Use it liberally!

Why not?



Fr. Gjengdahl said...

A fantastic little article on the question "why?" I am a promoter of this question, especially when used liberally but genuinely, not childishly.

If you ask the students at the school at my parish, you can ask any of them (well, middle schoolers specifically) what my favorite question to ask of God is. They will respond, "Why?"

Thank you very much for promoting this important question.

Lavona said...

It is a good topic. I can answer for myself, that when I was little, "why" was asked only when I was in trouble. So the gut reaction is defensive.
Thanks for reminding us that we need to think past our "knee-jerk" reactions and seek further communication and understanding.

Adoro said...

Fr. Gjengdahl ~ It IS the perfect question to put to God, isn't it? Thanks for promoting it yourself!

Lavona ~ Yeah, I have that trick knee, too.;-) I think mine is worst than most people's!

Brother Charles said...

I'm reminded of one my favorite prayers attributed to St. Francis:

"Who are you Lord? And who am I?"

Adoro said...

Father Charles ~ I thought it was "Who are you Lord, and what am I?"

Do you know the source of that prayer? Or is it one of the legends? Either way I like it, too.

Melody K said...

Why? is an honest question. And an honest answer is sometimes "I don't know", or "I'm still trying to figure it out."

Mary said...

You know After reading both posts. I am a person that will ask why all the time. One because I like to know. Some times it's hard to know if Why when you read it is a good why or a bad why.

So thanks for looking at the word Why

Rachel said...

This was a really good post! And a good follow-up to the last one. I've always been annoyed when people ask "why?". I've just started recently, during the Lenten series at my Church, to appreciate asking "why?" and start asking those questions myself. :)

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts: first thanks for this post. My own adolescence was filled with Whys, and my religious ed teachers had no answers. It was a terrible terrible feeling, and I incorrectly took it to mean that the Church had no answers, either. Taking someone else's Whys seriously often means we have to question our own assumptions and understanding. It means we have to give up our pride and be humble again.

Second thought: no, why isn't the most important question to ask God. "What do you want me to do, God?" is. And while the whys matter so much to us humans, like the answer to Job, the answer to us is We cannot conceive of His Whys. We should not be looking for it to all be explained away to us, until our pride or entitlement is satisfied. We must learn to let go and do what He wants, not what we want. Letting go of wanting answers to Whys needs to come. But it comes LATER in our formation and development than most of us realize.

Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve said...

Thanks for this post on the importance of taking people's questions seriously.
I think sometimes in ordinary conversations, it's the tone of voice more than the word itself that people react to.

Did you get the email I sent you about the angel story? I'm hoping to use it in the angel book but I need to get your formal permission.
Thanks and God bless you!
Sr Lorraine

Adoro said...

Allison ~ I don't see where someone claimed it is the best word to ask of God, and I don't think I said that.

I did say it's perhaps the best word in the English language, but the context of this post is quite broad.

Or am I just sleepy and am missing something?

I agree with you regarding the BEST question to GOD is regarding His will..not the why, but the WHAT?

Adoro said...

Sr. Lorraine ~ Yes, tone defines a lot, but not always. Sometimes it's the very question itself that causes us to assume the worst. Sad commentary on our nature. But the good new doesn't have to be!