It's so interesting to look at words and how the same word can have such different meanings. I looked at the word 'want' a few months back, and found that it meant both 'desire' and 'deficiency', as in 'I want a new job', and 'I want knowledge.' The words have the same root of meaning, but they manifest quite differently. It's similar with 'why'.
'Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?', but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?' Erwin Chargaff, Austrian Scientist
One of the most important skills you learn when training to be a coach or therapist is how to ask the right questions. They should be open, said our trainer, How? What? Who? Where? Especially 'how' and 'what' he said.
And rarely, if ever, why.
'But why not why?' was our instinctive response. Why? is such a good word, surely, for getting to the bottom of something?
Because it is too challenging, he said.
Imagine you're talking with a friend and she is describing, for the umpteenth time, the shortcomings of her partner. The words 'why are you still with him?' form and die on your lips. Because that is not a sympathetic question is it? Basically you are saying, 'if you don't like this guy, for God's sake put us all out of our misery and leave him!' It is not a genuine question to which you are seeking an answer. If you said that to your friend, it would probably change nothing in terms of her relationship, but she would feel criticised and hurt and it would spoil your meeting.
But if you looked kindly into her eyes, and said...
'I am really curious to know, why do you stay with him?' something very different happens, for this is a genuine inquiry and could lead to some interesting territory that might well help your friend, and you.
If you look up 'why' in the dictionary, you'll find something along the lines of 'for what purpose or reason', as the first definition. This is the one most favoured by two year olds. If you look further, though, you find things like:
'An interrogatory word, often rhetorical, often said in a rant of despair, remorse, or depression'
'The ultimate question. The one with no answer.'
'A one word question that can make any conversation go on forever.'
'The question that will haunt man forever. If someone found an answer, the CIA would take care of that person.'
'Used to offer a suggestion or to say that a course of action is not necessary'
'Used to express irritation or annoyance'
It's amazing how much meaning you get can into one apparently innocent word.
The word 'why' cropped up in a booklet I was reading recently, on grief. Grief is defined as 'the normal process of reacting to a loss'.
We don't like grief. We can handle anger, hatred, jealousy, even depression, but we don't want sadness or grief. Feelings of loss over things we can do nothing about is more than most of us can bear, and, as you would expect, we have a whole set of structures in our psyche designed to stop us feeling it. One of these is the question 'why?'
The first rule for resolving grief, says Joseph Kellermann, author of the booklet, is to stop asking the question why, and start asking, instead, who, what, where, how?
I was puzzled. I lingered on this. In fact I probably asked myself, why? Why stop asking why? I've asked why all my life. It's what good scientists do, good philosophers, curious and intelligent people, and inquisitive two year olds. Why stop asking why, for goodness' sake?
Then I got it. Why certainly can be a very productive question, in the spirit of 'I wonder why xx did that thing.' I wonder why the earth goes round the sun. I wonder why clouds look the way they do. I wonder why people in some other cultures don't have pets.
But that's not how we use it when something difficult is happening. Why did that plane crash? Why is that man cutting off people's heads? Why would someone take a sweet sixteen year old girl, kill her and cut up her body? Why, why, why?
Embedded in that question is the word 'no'. No, no, no, no, no. That plane should not have crashed and I am not going to believe it until you explain why it happened. I can't get my head around someone cutting off another person's head and putting it on the internet where their family can see it. You'll have to explain that one to me before I can accept it. In fact, when Russell Brand asked that very question, why did this man do this thing?, with genuine curiosity, he was vilified as a sympathiser. After news came of the Bristol murder the bishop of Bristol said he 'struggled to understand' why someone would kill a young girl in such brutal fashion.
We all know what he means. It's like when you put a CD in the player and it isn't quite slotted in and so it spins aimlessly and noisily until you reinsert it. That's what our brains feel like when we hear these awful stories, and when we are faced with our own losses. It struggles and struggles to make sense of what it's hearing, but it just whirrs and whirrs. And it doesn't seem to matter how many times you reinsert, the information never quite slots in.
This is called denial. It is the first stage of grief and while you're in it you can protect yourself from reality, but you can't move on.
Why did my relationship end, why did someone die, why did I lose my job, why did I fail my exam, why won't my sister talk to me any more, why did my friend betray me? We feel sure that, whatever happens, we will be able to deal with it if we can only be in possession of an explanation. But the fact is we rarely are.
Kellerman goes on to say ' It is impossible in life to find an answer to 'why' in human conduct, other than all persons exercise choice, and in the process of volition, people do what they want to do, and this is not always right or best for them or others. This is the way life is.'
Our 'whys', ironically, stop us from facing the facts. We are too preoccupied with trying to fit what we're experiencing into our current model of the world to be able to see the truth of what is happening. As a result we can't grieve, because we have not yet accepted what has happened. And if we can't grieve, we can't heal.
'Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted.'
From The Beattitudes.
1. Is there any loss in your life over which the question 'why' still hovers? It could be a major loss, like death or divorce, or it could be smaller - your favourite vase broken, a friendship that isn't as close as it was, a restructuring at work. You may not have explicitly asked the question why, but if you have the sense that you have not quite got to grips with this loss, not quite accepted it, not taken any time to grieve over it, then you can be sure that 'why' is around.
2. Allow yourself to feel into the question 'why?' in this context. Is there anger there, confusion, resentment, refusal to accept?
3. Letting go of the question 'why', ask instead, what happened, who did what, how was it done, what was the result. Ask, what have you lost and what is your life like as a result? This is reality.
4. Very kindly, allow yourself to grieve this loss. This is the beginning of healing.
'To the dumb question, 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, 'Why not?'
Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author, who died young, of cancer