I knew a man once who refused to answer “why questions.” The way he said it always irritated my inner snark, and I was sorely tempted to ask, “And why is that?”
But the truth is, he had a point. Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. I am not talking about certain factual why questions, like, “Why is the sky blue?” or, “Why do helium balloons float?” Rather, I am speaking now of the personal why questions, like, “Why do you like blue cheese?” or, “Why do you write?” The only reason we do anything is because we like to do it or we think we might like to do it, and the only reason we like anything is because we like it.
My friend’s problem – or, I should say my problem with my friend – was that his refusal to answer the why questions was phrased with almost political defiance, as if he were on the witness stand pleading the fifth. But again, this is understandable. Whenever I ask myself, “Why did you do that?” I really mean, more or less, “How could you have made such a mistake?” I never ask myself why I did something when the results turn out sparkling.
Much of the job of fiction writers is to probe why their characters do what they do. Most of our characters get into trouble, but they do so with the belief that their actions will bring them happiness or at least relief from misery. We often understand our characters not as an engineer understands the physics of a skyscraper, but as a friend understands another friend – sympathetically – recognizing in ourselves the same doubt and anguish that led us to entanglements from which we had to eventually free ourselves – the stuff of good fiction.
I believe despair waits for us at the very end of every why question because the question assumes an architectural order to the universe that does not exist. Everything architectural is by necessity static, while life remains perpetually in motion. When we ask why, we are really begging to see this false order revealed so that we might stand at last on firm ground and feel safe. When the order does not emerge, we are left believing that either we are incapable of finding it, and so we have failed, or that the universe is built on sand, and safety is impossible.
The question we really want to ask of ourselves is never “Why?” but “What?” What do I most want at this moment? This we can know, and every time we answer it we learn again that it was never safety we were seeking but happiness.
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