There is a rare breed of curious and inquisitive and often frustrating child that is always asking the reasons why things are the way they are. It ought to come as little surprise that I was such a child (and that my inquisitive nature and my desire to understand the reason for everything still remains intact, even if the reasons one finds out are often rather sobering and lead to painful reflection). When one is a child, the questions one often asks are fairly innocent and straightforward and even perhaps a bit naive. One asks why the sky is blue, why people are selfish or rude, or why one’s parents don’t get along. When one is older, the questions one wants to know the reasons about are still less enjoyable–why is this world so screwed up, and how much of it is my fault? Nor, for someone like me, are the “why” questions that people ask me any less enjoyable to explore: “why are you in Oregon?” and “why are you single?” being prominent among those questions I have to answer over and over again.
When I was a junior in high school, about half a life ago, I remember my Theory of Knowledge teacher playing a song called “A Reason For It All” that was sung by two Australian singer-songwriters about the sad case of an elderly Australian woman who had died and whose decaying and unburied body had remained in her house for months until it was found to the horror of others. People, of course, asked why such an old woman would be forgotten. She had no family around, her neighbors were not particularly neighborly, and a frail old woman cannot be expected to put herself out there and get to know others and get around very easily. She apparently had no caretaker, no congregation or clubs to visit her and listen to her and encourage her, and she died completely forgotten until the discovery of her corpse forced the entire nation of Australia to reflect painfully on their lack of neighborly concern for others. People asked why, and the answers they found were troubling and disconcerting.
Why do people ask why? After all, from a superficial perspective it is often pointless to ask why–knowing the reasons why something happened or exists does not change its existence at all. Moreover, researching the reasons why something happens often leads to complicated and contentious questions of worldview, questions of divine providence or design or purposefulness within a universe that seems harsh and uncaring towards us. It takes a great deal of time and effort to wrestle with the reasons why, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must often admit that we do not understand completely the reasons why, no matter how hard or how deep our efforts are. We must knowingly accept partial answers (because no complete answers are forthcoming), and even those partial answers force us to confront ugly realities about ourselves, and the extent to which we consider ourselves responsible for our own fate, even if our ability to make our own fate is heavily bounded by the choices and behavior of others even if our own free will is most definitely real.
But our compelling need to know why suggests that there is a deep importance for us to understand purpose and rationality in the universe. We need to be reassured that our lives and our experiences are not entirely random and without meaning, but that they are part of a greater plan even if that plan is not entirely within our own control. Knowing that there is some greater purpose to what we suffer makes the pain and misery of our lives possible to endure, since we know there is a glorious end to the inglorious lives most of us live in this present evil world. Even without knowing all of the reasons why, the faith and conviction that there are reasons provides a sense of comfort because there is a place and a purpose for what we experience, which allows even great evils to be endured patiently without leading to madness or despair.
I certainly do not pretend to know the reasons of my own life and existence. At times I can glimpse one or another purpose to specific events and experiences and see through a glass darkly that there is some greater purpose to my own nature and personality and the places where I have traveled in the course of a nomadic and often futile existence. But at other times the purpose eludes me and I am left to ponder and question within myself, to fill pages of writing and hours of melancholy reflection with my hopes and fears, my frustrated longings and deep concerns. I imagine that no one who lives a life of depth and genuine self-examination has avoided at least some of that fate. To ask why, and to seek to uncover the reasons why, is to seek to understand deep and dark patterns and cycles of human behavior, dark corners of our own personalities and characters, and frustrating questions of apportioning blame and responsibility, as well as examining what (if anything) can be done about it. But as long as people ask why, we will have to wrestle with the repercussions of it, to see the tradeoff that results from increased knowledge and understanding, and the struggle to remain optimistic and hopeful even in the light of deep and dark examinations. But if we want life to be worthwhile, much effort is required, even if that effort is forgotten because we live such obscure lives so easily forgotten.