It can stop a conversation short: the word WHY. Especially when it’s asked about feelings.

 

In our culture WHY carries hidden messages of judgment. “Why are you sad, John?” (Hidden message, You shouldn’t be sad. Your sadness makes me uncomfortable. Stuff your sadness, please.) WHY can sound challenging, subtly demanding “Why do you feel so tired?” (Hidden message, People who tend to their health shouldn’t feel tired; it must be your fault somehow. Buck up and get going.) Better responses might be to affirm what you see (“You seem sad, John” or “Liz, you look tired”) and then wait for whatever they might choose to reveal.

 

When someone is talking, WHY can divert the focus away from the speaker’s story, and onto the listener’s curiosity. Questions about details like “Why did he say that?” or “Why did you go there?” or “Why didn’t you go to the party . . . the store . . . the doctor?” at best cut the story short and at worst carry unspoken judgments of “should” and “shouldn’t.” Better by far is just listening attentively, and letting the story play out.

 

Here’s an interesting hidden-message WHY: “Why don’t we have a picnic today?” It has an underlying tone of challenge: I dare you to find a reason not to go on a picnic with me.

 

The world of science and research is built on WHY. In the April 2016 issue of The Sun Magazine there is an interview of Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and steeped from childhood in its “notion of plants as companions and teachers.” She is also a botanist with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. She says, “as an aspiring botany major, I was pressured to adopt the scientific worldview; to conceive of these living beings as mere objects; to ask not, ‘Who are you?’ but ‘How does it work?’ . . .” (That’s another form of WHY.)

 

Kimmerer continues, “After I’d gotten my PhD and started teaching, I was invited to sit among indigenous knowledge holders who understood plants as beings with their own songs and sensibilities. In their presence, and in the presence of the plants themselves . . . I was reminded   . . . that my primary relationship with plants was one of apprenticeship. I’m learning from plants, as opposed to only learning about them.”

 

The WHYs of scientific research can be a barrier to hearing stories the natural world has to tell us. The WHYs of social interactions can be barriers to hearing stories of our fellow humans. WHY can trample over patience and appreciative inquiry and receptive silence, what Kimmerer names as “apprenticeship.”

 

Several incidents lately have made it tempting for me to challenge Life with WHY questions: why does a human life have such a short span? why must the human body break down as it ages? why was each of us born? and the Big WHY: why is there existence at all? But even though it’s natural to ask them sometimes, those WHYs, too, are rude questions.

 

Isn’t it better for me to sit with Life as if it were a friend, having the sort of deep conversation that I find so energizing among my human peers?

 

As I am, in this very moment, and as Life is, in this very moment, who are Life and I to each other?

 

What do we have to learn, each as apprentice to the other (for I have much to offer to Life as well)?

 

Can Life and I love each other exactly as we are, in this moment and in the next moment and the next? Can we pledge not to squelch our exchange with the rudeness of WHY; can we focus on Who we are for each other, and What we truly experience right now in each other’s presence?

 

Am I finally going off the deep end, writing in a blog about having a philosophical conversation with Life?

 

Not necessarily. If I can find myself wanting to shout “WHY?!” at Life, then surely I can also engage Life in discussion as well, without having to ask the rudest question.

 

Care to get together with me, Life, for coffee and conversation?

 

Blog post by Cynthia Trenshaw, Author of Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Our Culture’s Invisible People, available at your local bookstore, or from Amazon.com.

 

17 replies
  1. Mike Trenshaw
    Mike Trenshaw says:

    So after “Why” is the follow up question “And how does that make you feel?”

    I have always found “Why” to be the superpower of 4 year old kids. I often find myself stopping to consider the answers a lot deeper that a cursory ‘because I said so’ because I know it is asked with genuine curiosity. Maybe if we treated all people like 4 year olds they would stop using the baited “Why” and go with just the curious “Why”

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I like it that you’ve created two kinds of “why” – baited, and curious. Great food for thought. Thanks.

      Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Although in the blog post the invitation was extended to Life, I’d be delighted to join you for chai and chatting. Maybe we’ll talk about the “existential angst” of the Big Questions . . . ☺

      Reply
  2. Alison Heins
    Alison Heins says:

    Wow! Now I finally understand the reason that my next door neighbor, a celebrated high school teacher who held a “discussion club” for select students, intimidated me so. He would always ask, “why do you think that?”, and I would feel completely challenged, at a loss for words, and stupid! Thanks, Cynthia for this insight. What a lovely idea, to have conversations with life!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Amazing, isn’t it, how that word goes directly (but stealthily) to your gut? When you become aware of the WHY word, and its effect on you, you can be on the alert, and look for a response from that same gut place, maybe speaking from your feelings rather than your thoughts. Or maybe even telling the why-asker that the question makes you feel defensive. Of course, their response to that may well be, “And WHY is that?” !! ☺

      Reply
  3. Ted
    Ted says:

    So why, exactly, did you write this piece? Just kidding, of
    course, but I couldn’t resist. Thank you, Cynthia, for your gentle
    and deep Wisdom!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      You were kidding, but I took the bait for a millisecond . . . which proved to me, once again, how powerful that word is, and how it hooks me viscerally. Fascinating. Thanks, Ted.

      Reply
  4. Marg
    Marg says:

    On the spiritual path, there is a parallel and equally rude question one can ask of God: Why me?
    But I do like the muscle that “why” gives in the statement “Why not!”
    Why yes, coffee and conversation with you would be a pleasure!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      That would be lovely.

      And, as I told Cynthia below, the invitation in the blog post is extended to Life. Many readers missed that – maybe because the personification of Life is a little off-the-wall. And it is with Life that most of my current concerns need to be addressed.

      Reply
  5. Marian Blue
    Marian Blue says:

    Good conversational advice.

    WHY is often used as justification as well, when we are afraid we can’t do anything to create change: Why bother? Why care?

    Thank you for reminding me to think.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      That would be wonderful.

      However, in the blog post the One that I invited for coffee and conversation is Life! ☺

      Reply

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