IN PRAISE OF “WHY”

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When I was small, my mother often called me “Miss Why.”   Mine were not the sort of repeated “Why?”s to which an exasperated mother could snap back, “Because I said so!”  I really wanted to understand why things were the way they were.

Why was it all right to go to the bathroom with other little girls, but not with little boys?  Why did I have to stop being a leftie in kindergarten and start using my right hand? (Even if it made me stammer.) Why didn’t I have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandpas and grandmas like everyone else? Why didn’t Daddy like it when the unmarried lady upstairs brought a Christmas tree down to our living-room and decorated it with a Star of Bethlehem at the top — just for me?

My poor mother had wanted a sweet little girl with Shirley Temple curls, not a pint-sized inquisitor.  As soon as I could read, my parents bought me the Book of Knowledge — a sixteen-volume encyclopedia for children popular in the 1930’s, with enough pictures and stories on every page to keep me quiet for a long while.

I did eventually learn to be quiet when necessary. (See next paragraph.) But I still need to understand why things are the way they are — with the people I know or have known, or loved and married, or raised and sent out into the world, or cannot forgive.  And then there’s the world itself — the smaller one I live in now, the larger one I used to work in, and the much larger one we all inhabit.  Why are things the way they are there?

I just don’t often ask aloud anymore. After you grow up, you soon learn it may often/usually/always be wiser — or even mandatory — not to probe in front of other people. Besides, I’m a big girl now and probably can figure out most of whatever it is for myself, as much as anyone can.  I can spot superficial explanations, smell shitty ones, turn away from the politic ones, the expedient ones, the ones designed to deflect further “Why?”s.  I don’t let myself get away with much anymore, either.  (Why did I do/say that?  Why was I so needy, boastful, negligent, unkind?)

Of course, I also now know there’s no full and comprehensive answer to any “Why.”  But without the question, the world is not only mysterious but oppressive. Especially where there’s so much suffering and pain — how can one not ask “Why?”

Other people seem less bothered at not knowing the “Why” of things.  Some trust in God, believing there are divine reasons which will be made manifest hereafter. Others are more interested in the answers to easier questions — “What?” and “When?” and “Where?” and “How?” — and with being first to pass them on. (The reportorial approach.)

And then there are the therapists, in their professional capacities less concerned with the ontology of it all than with “How does that make you feel?”  (Alone with themselves in the night, though, don’t they too cry out “Why?”)

In the end, all we may have are provisional answers to small questions. A disciple asked Socrates, condemned to drink poison in thirty minutes, why he was still practicing his flute.  “So that I may learn this song,” he replied.

But we wouldn’t have known that if someone hadn’t asked “Why?”

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24 thoughts on “IN PRAISE OF “WHY”

    • There weren’t as many editions of The Book of Knowledge as, for instance, of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I suppose material deemed appropriate for children to read about didn’t change as much over the years. So you may have been reading the same edition, even though you’re much younger. I particularly liked the stories of historic examples of heroism by people otherwise not famous, and also the Little Book of Make and Do, although I never made anything suggested there.

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  1. Hello Nina!
    “Miss Why” – I love it! ❤ If there was a similar expression in Japanese, my mother would have loved it, because I used to drive her crazy with my "why's." I was never content with standard answers like 'because that's the way it always has been' or (even worse) 'because I said so.' 😀

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    • “Miss Why” isn’t a standard English expression. My mother made it up. (She might have said “Miss Stubborn” or “Miss Lazybones” — although she didn’t.) Surely there must be words in Japanese from which one could cobble together something similar? Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post.

      I find it curious, though, that the comments are focusing on the childhood part of it, which I thought was just the introduction to something more serious. I guess it’s true that once writing leaves the writer to go out into the world, its readers make of it what they will….

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  2. My parents said this to me so much that I vowed never to say it to my children if I had any. They also said in answer to my queries ” you’ll understand when you are older.” I wanted to know then not years into the future. Thank goodness , we , who come from an era that seemed to think boys brains were superior to girls , asked questions and kept on until we were answered . As usual a blog that makes us think.

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  3. An odd response, and with an idea that odd responses are sometimes best. This from Stevie Smith’s “I Do Not Speak” (clearly the poem of a quite grown up!):

    I do not ask for anything I do not speak
    I do not question and I do not seek
    I used to in the day when I was weak.

    Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow

    – Wm. Eaton, Montaigbakhtinian

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    • Some men also ask “Why?” The philosophers, academics and outliers, among others. (Men aren’t all bad, you know.) So maybe just a “Why” Club? Even if opened up to all kinds of chromosomes, I bet it wouldn’t be oversubscribed.

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      • My comment wasn’t meant to say anything about men’s inclinations one way or the other, and certainly not to say they’re bad. I was just relating my experience to yours, which as you suggest, isn’t overly common.

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      • And my comment was meant only to question why our club should be just for girls. But maybe you’re right. The things we ask “why” about may differ somewhat from the answers the guys are seeking. Peace?

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