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?”