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Jeffrey M. Bowen: Asking why leads to understanding

We are much better at answering questions of who, what, when and where than answering why. Motives and interpretation lurk beneath the question why, and this can muddy the waters for everyone. It is natural to seek mindfulness and reason in the acts and ideas of others. Yet just as predictably, we lie to ourselves and others when we try to explain our own actions or beliefs.

Consider the whys found in the old song, “Tell me why the stars do shine, tell me why the ivy twines…” The composer credits both love and God in his lyrics, but as science fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, nuclear fusion and tropisms provide more grounded but less exciting answers. Whatever your perspective, for me asking why has been a lifelong journey toward understanding.

When we ask why, mostly we hope for simple, specific answers. But when contentious problems or policy issues arise, the why question spawns not just philosophical disagreements, but sometimes warfare. Active listening while remaining open-minded can help reduce risks.

As a history teacher, I urged my students to think long and hard about developing what we called essential questions without easy answers so their research might stimulate original thinking and real understanding. Pushing them to ask why provoked blank stares at first, but with guidance the students usually waded beyond simple yes or no responses. How I wish today’s standardized state tests were designed to do this.

Why escapes us when we dehumanize others. With disastrous implications given today’s refugee exodus from Syria and Afghanistan, we try to answer why by assuming large groups of unidentified people have no minds at all. We say they lack emotions, needs or awareness like ours, and therefore may be savages who could harm us. However, when we meet and talk with them individually, a more sympathetic relationship usually comes to light. We discover everyone is human after all.

I experienced this revelation when I attended a multicultural education workshop some years ago. The facilitator brought a group of culturally diverse individuals to the stage, and asked them to state their name and tell the audience about the origins of their family. Thus we became vividly aware of both their diversity and their universality.

Another self-deception comes from giving human characteristics to inanimate objects or animals. A large photo of a silver-haired gorilla hangs on our wall. A resident of the Buffalo Zoo, he seems to be smiling mischievously at anyone who passes by. Actually, after taking a picture of him lying down, I hung the picture vertically, which had the effect of making him seem to smile. I like to think he really is, but it is more likely he had a gas bubble. We want to make things human so we can explain them in our own terms.

By embracing the worlds of why, we can become depressingly negative if we focus just on ourselves (“Why me, God?”), or assertively upbeat (“Why can’t we do this?”). I happen to believe that asking why is a direct route to learning. It signals a curious mind, solves mysteries more than just creating them. But it has its dangers when it tempts us to think we are right and others are stupid. The best general rule for why-askers is to pose the question and then be ready to stop, reflect and be honest about what we hear.