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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.

Over time I’ve noticed that all of these default stories tend to boil down to blame: “I deserved it.” Oddly enough, these stories of self-blame are often comforting to the part of us longing for safety because it tells us that we are powerful enough to control what happens to us. Each of these stories provides us with some means of keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe in the future if we can just get right our part of the appropriate deal with the Universe or God or Life.

At the same time, the very impulse for learning to make better choices that serves us on the factual level of physical cause and effect also keeps us trapped in a continual cycle of deal-making and quests for self-improvement based on these stories that we have created for our own comfort. While every deeper story we might choose may offer us some comfort or potential for growth, every story also has its shadow side that can lead to the illusion that we can control more than we really can or can create even more pain through the self-blame it generates.

The truth is that we can’t truly know whether any of these stories is actually true in any given case. If there is no way to really know, then any story I choose is just that—a choice. And if I’m the one spinning the deeper story about why something happened, then I can choose whatever story is the most helpful to me in moving forward in the healthiest way possible.

In fact, I have the right and the responsibility to choose the story that will offer the greatest assistance with the minimum amount of shadow for me. This also means that I don’t have to allow others to impose their stories on me, nor do I have the right to impose my story on them.

Even more important, if I’m the one choosing the story, then I can also choose to let go of having a story at all. Sometimes painful things just happen, and I’ll never know why. If I’ll never know why, then I can spend that energy choosing how I want to move forward instead of spending it on polishing my story.

My best friend died several years ago from an aggressive form of cancer that took her very quickly. On a factual level, they why is clear: Cancer is why she died. But why did she get cancer at such a young age? Why was it not found until it was too late to do anything about it? Why did she get such an aggressive form? Why her? The truth is that I’ll never know any of these things.

I do know that the experience of losing her has taught me so much about valuing friendship and about valuing life itself because I never know how much more of it I might have. But I don’t think she died for the purpose of teaching me that lesson. I also don’t think she died because I (or she) deserved to be punished or because I (or she) didn’t think enough positive thoughts after her diagnosis or because I (or she) wasn’t good enough in some way. Letting go of knowing why frees me instead to focus on remembering her with love and gratitude, and living my life more fully with an increased appreciation for the brevity of it.

The way in which we choose to move forward from these painful, challenging moments in our lives is ultimately where the rubber meets the road. What stories do you default to when bad things happen to you? Do those stories make you more resilient in the face of those trials, or do they provide comfort at the cost of keeping you stuck? What would it mean for you to let go of having any story at all, to sit with the longing for an explanation of why without moving to fill it?

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