When the answers are absent or unfathomable
In journalism, you’re taught to ask the six questions for any story: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
Scientists tend to concentrate on the What, When and How, with the others feeding into that mold.
Philosophers and spiritual leaders look more for Why and Who might be involved in cause and effect.
The rest of us lean towards whatever question our own fears and needs lead us, whether it is a Who to blame, a How to avoid a negative or better a positive, and the most difficult: Why?
Why do good things happen to bad people? (As the best-selling book is titled.)
Why did this happen to me/mine?
Why was that person given a raise/healed/blessed with kids/etc. and I wasn’t?
Why was I spared a tragedy, but that person wasn’t?
I suspect “Why” is a very human question. My dog is sad for a time when my husband goes on the road, and happily bird-dogs him the first few days he’s home again. She get’s annoyed on our walks when I call her to me to get her out of the street when a car comes. But beyond the slight cause-and-effect of “a car is coming and Mom calls me to her to wait”, I don’t believe she comprehends that remaining in the street when a car comes could result in her injury or death.
When she woke us up with frantic barking one night, it wasn’t that she knew the neighbor’s mobile home was on fire and people were in danger; she just knew that there were noises and smells outside that weren’t right or normal. She doesn’t understand Why.
Most every child I know of hits the Why stage in varying degrees between ages 2 and 8. For some of us, “Because I told you so,” is sufficient, at least for a time. My parents learned early on and switched to “Go look it up.” Before Google, that meant the encyclopedia or dictionary. When I answered, “But I can’t read yet,” they said, “Bring it here, and I’ll read it to you,” or more often, “have your sister read it to you.”
The existential Whys for me started at eight years old, when 1) my teen sister left the family to have a baby, 2) my family moved to a different state, and 3) I heard my dad crying late one night and telling my mother to take the family and leave him (she didn’t). I didn’t understand all that was happening, but began to ask questions internally without really knowing what was happening nor getting answers.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and my dad died that I had the vocabulary to frame my thoughts and feelings about the whole thing.
Who = my dad
What = he died
Where = in the hospital
When = May 31, 1974
How = he bled out internally
Why = the doctors thought he had a blood clot on his lung from appendix surgery and treated it as such. He was actually bleeding from a perforated esophageal ulcer, and their treatment was the opposite of that needed.
Those are the answers that would appear in a medical report, and in fact did appear in an article his doctor wrote (with my mom’s permission) to help prevent similar deaths.
But the Whys I asked myself went beyond that.
Why now? He had been miserable for the last four years after an MS diagnosis, but had just started seeing a psychiatrist and was feeling better.
Why me? Now he wouldn’t be there to see me graduate, get married, go to college, be a grandpa to my kids. (Sure, those things applied to varying degrees to my sisters, but I was 16 after all!)
I’ve never stopped asking questions, particularly Why.
It gets me into trouble, too. I took apart my tape recorder in Junior High and put it back together again, just to see how it worked. I like to find the pattern, the system behind the way things function, whether it be a thunderstorm, the way a work process should flow, or the way a process actually does flow due to politics, etc. Some people see my questions as a challenge to their perceived authority, real or not. Some simply don’t care. Some think I’m crazy to want to know.
My interest in science leads me to consider studies in areas of interest as diverse as geology, chemistry, climate, anthropology, psychology and medicine. And I have continued to ask Why.
While in Bible College, I discovered the prophets — particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah — who asked God Why and didn’t get struck down by lightning! And Job, who lost everything, and as he mourned the loss of his whole family was chided by his friends. While God asked him a few questions back, namely “Who are you to ask me?” God didn’t hold it against him.
So, asking the questions is OK.
But what if we don’t get an answer? Or worse, what if the answer seems like a resounding NO, or something equally awful?
This is where Faith comes in.
Faith gets a bad rap these days. It’s almost as misunderstood as Grace.
I’m not talking about the kind of faith that says, “If you only pray enough, or tithe enough, or believe hard enough, or cleanse your mind/body enough, meditate enough, etc.” We can never be “enough” in those ways. We’re human. We screw up.
No, I’m talking about the kind of faith that says, “I can’t do this by myself. But there is someone/something out there who will help me.”
Maybe it’s friends who will encourage you, or a counselor or pastor who will gently walk with you as you learn to live with questions that don’t always have answers. Perhaps it’s a book, or poet, or song that you feel the Universe has brought to your attention. Or maybe, like me, you believe in a God who has walked “through the valley of the shadow of death” and is walking with you now. One whom you can trust to both guide and be present through every twist and turn, using all those methods above and more to guide, console, and be present.
I get in trouble with some when I discuss spiritual things with such broad strokes. But that’s because I believe that the God I’ve come to know and rely on has Grace and Love enough to reach each of us where we are at, in whatever way we are willing to listen.
And that understanding of Love — of Grace that doesn’t expect anything of me but acceptance — is what allows me to get up on the bad days when I want to stay under the covers and withdraw from the world, as well as the good days. And even on the days when the answers are fearful, or absent completely.