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The Big Why

November 28, 2013

“Why?” is the 3 year old’s response to any declarative sentence. “Let’s go for a walk!” “Why?” “It’s raining outside!” “Why?” “Let’s get dressed!” – you get it.

As the house is to architecture, “Why?” is to questioning. Because humans uniquely need answers as much as food and shelter, “Why” is as central to our mindset as staying warm. Without its answer not much else matters. But “Why?” is the often the silent, unspoken inquisition after the age of 3. Like most people, I live in “What?” and “How?”. Bills, weather, resumes, possessions, hobbies all demand answers. It’s only my scientist and shrink friends who dwell more in “Why?” on a daily basis, but they are the exception.

You would think clerics would live in the realm of “Why”, but too often religion ceases spirituality when the “What’s” and “How’s” of ritual and canon drown out the “Why” of faith. The religion of many of my atheist friends, politics, falls prey to the unheard “Why” as well.  This particular screeching political season is aflame in “What” and “How” outrage, with the essential “Why” a silent irrelevancy in the jackass chorus of angry certitude. The older I get, the louder “Why?” becomes. This is somewhat by default as health, marriage and career have answered many of the “What/How/Where/Who” queries – but it’s also because there is more in my rear view mirror than in front of my windshield.

But for most of us “Why” is an afterthought. Something wonderful or terrible happens and we want to know why we deserved that outcome. Getting cancer if you smoke, or getting divorced if you cheat are obvious outcomes, but imponderables are more common than easy answers. A child falls prey to drugs. A happy marriage just becomes unhappy. Success becomes ashes. Things happen that no one wants to happen, and happen despite answering all the “What’s” and “How’s”. Absent control, all we can do is work harder, or give up.

But unquestioned drive also begs the “Why” question. One son becoming an All Conference football player and another graduating with a performance degree in horn seems to make sense given the unending work each result necessitated, but why did those intense desires exist, given neither son will perform either obsession to earn a living?

The unconsidered life may not be worth living, but it is where most of us spend most every hour. We do “What” we are incoherently called to do, “How” the effort will get the most results, and rationalize the obsession later, if ever. To my knowledge my parents did not have the luxury of “Why” in the generation formed in Depression and War – when survival is in question, asking “Why” is absurd. You gotta do what you gotta do.

And yet humans continuously ask “Why?” even when there are ironclad reasons to do what you gotta do. Friends have ceased living “correct” answers to the “How” and “What” questions: doctors have ceased the practice of curing disease, clerics stop preaching, huge earners give up the paycheck. All rejected the defendable answers in their lives because the “Why” became deafening. In today’s atmosphere of fundamental uncertainty, where there is a lack of any perceived ultimate social, technical or cultural direction, we relentlessly seek “what” works and “how” to make it happen, but we still ask “why” things are so, well, uncomfortable.

Precious little insight follows fortune. Tales of disastrous Lotto winners and celebrity self-destruction give solace to the unfortunate – but also amp up the question of why we are deaf to the obvious answers to how best to live and what the right thing to do is. Having children uniquely deflected the “Why” question in my life. Parenting pre-empted all other options. Children are, for me, The Prime Directive, bending all judgments to their needs. But they grow up.

While some spawn are in perpetual need due to health, bad choices or our suffocating over parenting, the majority grow beyond needing us. So the “Why’s” become the ever-increasing drumbeat of preoccupation, whether we like it or not. Golf, MSNBC/Fox News, fashion, book groups, opera, Dancing With The Stars or Sports Center can only drown out the “Why” for so long. A broken body part, marriage or career can sabotage the most elaborate construction of distractions.

For we of the “Me”‘/”Why Not?” generation living long, living hard, living well does not, finally open the Answer Book to the Big Why. All the essential preoccupations with “How” and “What”, once settled, for good or ill, only get us to a place where no grade, job description or possession can answer the “Why”.

As many of us have learned, the “Perfect School” does not make our children happy, a job is seldom a career, our bodies are not machines, and our perceptions are anything but objective. For me, I rely on exhaustion for validation. Physical exertion to the point of incapacity has been how I have avoided the “Why” – until in bed, in a car, or otherwise trapped inanimate in my mind. But effort, however fruitful, makes more lactic acid and caffeine addiction than the clarity of purpose being a parent afforded. I thank God every day for a marriage and healthy sons, wife and body, but acknowledgement of blessings is not the answer for the Big Why.

No matter how much I feel Grace every day, I find no rest in it. I find no soundbite cliche to staunch the gaping void of Why.

Back to work.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Maryzahl permalink
    November 28, 2013 9:47 am

    Brilliant post, Duo! Brilliant! Thank you. Love and Happy TG to you all Mary

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. jon saltzberg permalink
    November 28, 2013 8:18 pm

    I think the answer may be that there are no answers; for me in life, many good things have just befallen me out of left field; the well-known intellectual, Marilyn vosSavant, who works in medical research says that the ordinary man can tell you what happened, a talented man can tell you how something happened, but only the most gifted man can tell you why something happened; but the most important question, as you point out, is why; unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult question…when you ask yourself why something happened, and there aren’t ready answers for you, I think it’s important not to give into frustration, but to ask G-d for help, and keep an open mind.

    May this holiday season bring you and Liz, Sam and Will many blessings and a chance to show gratitude for the many ones you guys already have. Be well.

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