Why did my loved one get cancer and die so young?
Why didn’t I get that job?
In seeking reasons for things having unfolded as they have, some people are fond of saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” If you believe this, your biggest enemy is yourself, because not only are you going to spend time and energy searching for reasons, but the odds are good that you’re never going to have a reason that satisfies you.
We humans are an inquisitive lot. While it may be our nature to look for understanding about why certain inexplicable things happen, is there really any logical or systematic means for ascertaining the answer?
I think not.
The first thing I want to acknowledge is that the quest to find the answer to Why? has led to countless scientific advancements. In writing this essay, I am making a distinction between two different fields of behavior for us to understand when we ask, “Why?”
I am going to classify them arbitrarily as “machine” and “animal.” (I include humans as animals, in that scientists place us in the Animal Kingdom.)
By “machine behavior” I am referring to the way things work. While you don’t have to understand thermodynamics in order to take a ride in a plane, it would be useful if you are a pilot. Likewise, you don’t have to know how plumbing or electricity works in order to be able to flush a toilet or turn on a light, but you would need to know the principles involved if you were going to install a new plumbing or electrical system. When an automobile needs to be fixed, mechanics use their knowledge to make the necessary adjustments. There is a finite number of things that they can do to check the parts and get them in working order.
I believe that when it comes to “machine behavior,” it is quite useful for scientists and technicians to ask, “Why?” as well as, “Why not?” I will add that this kind of inquiry is not the subject of this essay.
Animal behavior — especially that of us human animals — is much more complicated, though, isn’t it?
This is the area where many people are more likely to say, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Have you noticed, though, that when we fixate on the reasons why things happen in our personal lives, it keeps us stuck in the past, oftentimes unable to move forward and make progress?
It seems normal that we want to understand what has happened and why it happened the way it did. We don’t always know the answers, however, and that keeps us stuck.
It all began in Ghana
In 2007, during two months that I was living in Accra, capital of Ghana, I had many opportunities to question what was going on around me, and to ask why they unfolded as they did. It was during this time that I began to think about how, ultimately, it was inconsequential to know the answer. I needed to stop asking, “Why?”
What I really needed to do was to acknowledge that many things happened without my understanding why and to accept the results by saying, “Yes!” Only then would I be able to move on with my life.
Not that that is such an easy thing to do.
My greatest lesson came to me from a Ghanaian woman who gave me a short and valuable response that served as the beginning of my understanding of this phenomenon and being able to put it to use for myself.
The events unfolded on a trotro, which is a minibus, a common mode of transport in Ghana. The mate (the driver’s assistant who collects fares) from our trotro got into a fistfight with the mate of another trotro. I was sitting in the front seat next to the driver, and the altercation had begun immediately behind me, so I couldn’t see how it had begun, which rendered me not only a bit skimpy on the details but curious about how quickly the action had escalated.
After a few minutes, when the guys moved several feet away from the vehicle itself, I took the opportunity to turn around to the young woman who was sitting directly behind me. Expecting that she might be able to shed some light on the circumstances (if she spoke English) I told her, I don’t understand what’s going on.
Her reply was not only succinct, but philosophical in its way, with the implication that there was simply too much about the culture that I would not have been able to comprehend. I am sure that she was correct when she responded with, “You won’t.”
It gave me a few moments to reflect on the situation. Whether I understood what was happening or not, a certain chain of events was inevitable: I was going to have to forfeit the change that I had been expecting from the mate, find another trotro, pay another fare on that subsequent trotro, and, ultimately, be late to work.
What would have been the use of my understanding what was going on? Being able to cope with the situation seemed a much more useful approach than being able to comprehend it.
Another example was the time, also in Accra, when I got a call from the American Express affiliated travel office that I had received a piece of mail that I had been waiting for. I told the caller that I would be right over; as luck would have it, I was already in a taxi and heading in the direction of that part of Accra. Yet, when I showed up, the lone person authorized to hand me the piece of mail — the one who had just called me only a few moments before — was not on the premises. I was told I would have to wait until he returned. Nobody know exactly when he would return.
There was so much I was not able to understand: Why call me to pick up something and then not be there when I tell you that I will be right over to retrieve it? Why, in an office with at least seven employees, is only one person authorized to hand over a piece of mail? Why doesn’t anybody know where he is or how to contact him to tell him that I was there for my mail?
In the long run, though, I didn’t need to understand the dynamics of the way that office worked. Understanding was not going to get him back any more quickly so that I could have my mail. What I needed was to be resourceful and patient by finding other things to do while waiting for the person to return to the office, which he ultimately did after two hours. In short, I needed to deal with it, not understand it.
Understanding — or not understanding — is a two-way street. I know that I have done my share of causing other people to scratch their heads, trying to figure me out in their own cultural contexts, and take their turn at not understanding me. When I reflect on such situations, it means that I can look at understanding from both sides now, which helps me to cobble together a more balanced view.
When I was in the Peace Corps, one of the issues that several of us had to deal with was our commitment to vegetarianism. During our training, the Peace Corps staff told us, “People will not understand why you are a vegetarian.” From my perspective, understanding was not necessary for dealing with the situation. All that I was asking for was keeping animal parts out of what was being served to me. It seemed simple: do A, not B. What I was looking for was not understanding, but compliance.
Isn’t it the same with parents and teachers who deal with all the “why” questions dealt out by the children in their charge? Kids don’t necessarily have to understand why they can’t have ice cream for breakfast or why they have to take a bath. They just have to follow the wisdom and authority on offer from the adults in charge.
Using this information to move from “Why?” to “Yes!”
Keeping all this in mind, I have found tremendous power in my own life in being able to make a switch from asking, “Why?” to saying, “Yes!” In this way, I move from being in a position where I have questions that cannot be answered to being in a position where I am, in essence, saying to myself, This is the way things are. Now that I know the way things are, I can move on, whether I understand why or not.
When I look at it this way, I see that asking, “Why?” is passive. I am waiting for an answer that is supposed to come from somewhere outside of myself. Who will deliver that answer? How long am I going to wait until I get it? A week? A year? The rest of my life?
By contrast, when I say, “Yes!” I feel active. I acknowledge my situation and I am determined to find a way to move beyond it.
Another example from my overseas travels:
When I was Mumbai, India I had hired a local guide to show me some sights. Towards the end of our time together, after I had invited him to dine with me, I reached into my pocket to retrieve the money clip which contained my credit cards, ATM card, and rupee notes. To my shock and dismay, it wasn’t there!
The obvious unanswerable questions came to me: Where was it? How had I lost it? I thought back to a playground where the guide had taken me, and to the children with whom we had interacted. Had he been in cahoots with one of them, arranging to have my pocket picked?
Ultimately, though, the answers to those questions didn’t matter. What really mattered was that I say, “Yes!” by acknowledging what had happened and swinging into action to alert my bank and credit card company about my loss, so that I could get the replacements.
(Note: the situation was not as critical as it might have been because I had other credit cards and another ATM card in my room.)
What can we learn from others who have sprung into action?
Sadly, when we experience the devastating loss of somebody we love, there will be people among our family and friends who attempt to comfort us by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” This puts us in the passive position of wondering if we will ever know what that reason is.
Many people have taken an activist role when tragedy struck them: Candy Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) after her thirteen-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver. Judy and Dennis Shepard became activists advocating for a better understanding of LGBT people after their son Matthew was killed in an anti-gay hate crime. The Compassionate Friends, an organization dedicated to giving peer support for the parents of children who have died, was founded by two mothers whose sons died at the same time in the same hospital.
I don’t assume for a moment that the parents involved in these organizations have stopped wondering why their children had to die when and how they did. It does seem to me, though, that they have taken mighty steps forward in acknowledging their losses, saying, “Yes!” and finding ways that they can help not only others, but also themselves, with their attitude.
For me, then, the real power in moving from Why? to Yes! is that it makes me feel active rather than passive: more in control of my life. It doesn’t mean that I have stopped wondering why certain things happen the way that they do. It just means that I have shifted the power from the external unknowable forces in the world to the only one on which I can depend: myself.