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Why Asking 'Why' Matters

April 7, 2017

 

 

I was on the beach last week and I saw a little boy push the friend he was playing with face first into the sand.  What ensued didn’t surprise me.  His mother rushed up to him, grabbed him by the arm, and with an irritated tone asked him, “Why would you do that?”  He didn’t have an answer.  He just shrugged his shoulders. 

 

Later on, I was sitting at the bar and heard a party of four talking politics.  They were talking about the health care bill and how this new bill, if passed, would harm a lot of the people who voted for President Trump.  “How could they still support this man?”

 

Both questions that day were valid and the individuals who asked them seemed genuinely curious about the response.  In the first instance, the mother probably had an idea why her son pushed his friend; yet she asked him this question to make himself aware of his actions and reflect on his rationale.  On the other hand, the party of four talking politics did not have an answer to their question, nor did it seem as though they knew anyone who could answer their question.  Because of that, they were left to speculate and toss around hypothesis in order to better understand the issue at hand.

 

Both instances highlight the power that questions can have in better understanding others and also better understanding ourselves.  Questions are powerful in that sense.  So what kind of questions should we ask?  The basic questions we can always ask are who, what, why, where, when, and how, but that can only tell us so much.  Rarely is a problem solved with just one question.  Most times it takes three or four questions as you begin to trace the thread back to the root of the issue.  Asking questions provides us with a framework to understand larger issues.   When thinking of which question provides the opportunity for maximum understanding of an issue, as well as one another, the answer is why.

 

Why is one of the most simple and thought provoking words in the English language.  It’s defined as ‘for what reason or purpose?’  Why do families leave their homeland?  Why do people steal?  By asking why we can challenge stereotypes, delve deeper into whatever we are curious about, challenge our thinking on complex issues, as well as reflect on what we are going through.  Additionally, another benefit of asking questions, specifically why, is that it shows others we are curious; asking questions shows other people that we don’t have all the answers, nor do we pretend to.  It opens the doors to understanding. 

 

Yet, sometimes asking a question doesn’t always go as planned.  Just as I saw with the little boy on the beach, why can put people on the spot and for some, it can power down their thought process. In a conversation with my friend, Joe O’Brien (Joy), he put forward a few ideas pondering the limitations of the word: “Asking why can be such a tough proposition.  What are we really asking when we ask why? Are we asking the impossible? Or is this another way of asking how?  I know that therapists are taught to avoid the question.  We often ask:  Can you say more about that?  I like that question.  It just furthers dialogue and keeps people talking; whereas, why can close it off.  I am often put on my heels when someone asks me why I did something or why something in the universe has happened.  I am not sure how to respond.”

 

 When confronted with why, we expect an immediate answer.  The Internet, specifically Google, has conditioned us to think this way. Yet answers to why can be complex, and since the brain isn’t a programmed machine, it needs time to process.  Sometimes students will ask me why and I just don’t have an answer to their question.  This is a humbling experience and reminds me the need to continue to learn and better understand the world around me.  Whether you don’t know an answer, or are asking a question to someone who may know, you are showing humility.  You show that you do not possess all knowledge, or that you wish to possess more knowledge.  It’s easy to make fun of what you don’t know or understand.  It’s harder to admit ignorance on an issue.

 

To expand on this, and put the idea of why in context, let’s look at the complex problem of poverty.  Just last week, while drinking coffee on a patio, I overheard a group of three foreigners (based on their accent) poke fun at a homeless woman who walked by our tables.  She looked haggard, her lips were pursed, and she was muttering to herself.  No time to understand- just judgment.  Additionally, I hear a lot of times how lazy homeless people are.  This is absolutely true in some instances, yet that is not all.  Everyone has a separate story.  If we stop to consider why people live in poverty, then our understanding of this complex issue changes, and the possibility to feel empathy may emerge.

 

So why do poor people stay poor?  The possibilities are endless. In an excerpt from her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Linda Tirado explained this exact issue.  She talks about the inability to buy in bulk, as well as the struggle to buy quality products.  Her main point puts a spotlight not directly on homelessness, but the last steps that are taken before someone could end up out of work and on the streets: “Simple annoyances for some are crises for people living in poverty.”

 

The late critic and novelist, William Mcpherson, reiterated Tirado’s last point in his excellent essay on living in poverty: “If you’re poor, what might have been a minor annoyance, or even a major inconvenience, becomes something of a disaster. Your hard drive crashes? Who’s going to pay for the recovery of its data, not to mention the new computer? I’m not playing solitaire on this machine; the hard drive holds my work, virtually my life. It is not a luxury for me but a necessity. I need dental work. Anybody got $10,000? Dentists are not a luxury. Dental disease can make you seriously ill. Lose your cellphone? What may be a luxury to some is a necessity to me. Without that telephone and that computer, my life as I have known it would cease to exist. Not long after, so would I. I am not eager for that to happen.”

 

With topics as complex as poverty, affordable and equal access to higher education, the refugee crisis, adequate access to health care, race relations, equal pay for women, affordable housing, and the list goes on, we must continue asking questions.  We must show humility in wanting to learn more about topics that we are unfamiliar with.  Asking questions brings us closer to one another.  It promotes understanding.  One of Socrates famous phrases was, “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.”  Let us know nothing, continue to seek something, and embrace the endless possibilities of why.

 

 

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