Releasing the Why
This article was first published in the May/June 2015 issue of Branches magazine (volume 28, number 2, page 10) on the theme of Resilience. Branches magazine is a print only magazine available in the Indianapolis area. One of the first things that most of us do in the face of disaster, heartbreak, and difficulty is to ask why. Why did this bad thing happen? Why did it happen to me instead of someone else? Why did it happen to them and not to me? This ache to know why is a ravenous hunger that drives us find explanations both at the factual level and at the deeper existential level. If no actual explanation appears, we weave stories of our own, often unconsciously, to feed that hunger because any story feels better than no story at all. On the factual level, this ache for explanations can be helpful. It is how we learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. It is helpful to recognize the outcomes of our choices so that we can make better choices in the future, but our craving for explanations does not stop at this factual level of cause and effect. What we really long for are existential stories that give the situations meaning and tell us how we can exercise greater control in the future to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We are searching for a magic deal we can make with life that will protect us. This is where our search for an answer gets us into trouble. The truth is that we really can’t know most of the time, but rather than sitting with the discomfort of not knowing, we default to stories—often given to us by our families, our cultures, or our faith traditions—to explain why bad things happen. We inherit these stories without ever consciously evaluating or choosing them, so we don’t even stop to question them. Some of the common ones I hear (and have used myself at various times) are:
- Bad things happen to me because God is disciplining me.
- Bad things happen to me to teach me a lesson I needed to learn.
- Bad things happen to me because I am experiencing cosmic payback for something bad I did in the past.
- Bad things happen to me because I did not think enough positive thoughts.
- Bad things happen to me because I wasn’t "good" enough (didn't eat the right foods, didn't exercise enough, didn't work hard enough, etc.).
- Bad things happen to me because I attract bad things with my unresolved wounds.