Monday, November 27, 2017


Last night, my mother-in-law was unenthusiastic about her restaurant dessert. "It's chocolate, whipped cream, and hazel nuts. In my generation people would have just said, 'Why?'" There was a pause around the dinner table, then we all burst into laughter.

"Why?" indeed.

It's a good question. It's always a good question, one that young preschoolers are famous for asking, often annoyingly so. My own daughter Josephine hit the "Why?" phase during her three-year-old year. I chose to not let it get under my skin and instead attempted, in the spirit of a game, to honestly answer the question whenever and wherever we were, going deeper and deeper and deeper until we came to the place where my only honest answer was, "I don't know, but we can find out." It's the game played by scientists and philosophers, theologians and toddlers, one that is infinitely deep, each answer spawning another "Why?"

I understand why overwhelmed adults might find such a seemingly endless game aggravating, but it's important to know that they aren't doing it to get on your nerves. Most of the time, it's a genuine attempt to get closer to the truth as each answer leads to more questions much the way that there is always one more shovelful of sand to remove from a hole. Sometimes the questions lead back to themselves, creating an endless loop. Sometimes they lead to a parsing of parsings. Sometimes they open up the universe.

One day Josephine met another slightly younger girl amongst the toys at Ikea who turned the tables on her, asking "Why?" to every one of her answers. Finally, in frustration, Josephine said, "Stop asking that question!" And from that moment forward the "Why?" phase was done at our house. I suppose it's the repetition that gets under our skin, as it did with Josephine, but I often wonder if it goes deeper than that. If we don't just answer perfunctorily, the chain of "Why?" takes us, step-by-step, towards an "I don't know" that we can't "find out," a place where speculation is all we have. We are left with the unknown, an uncomfortable place to be for many of us.

We all know where "Why?" ultimately leads us, even it if enlightens us until it doesn't. That's why we paused before we laughed at my mother-in-laws dessert critique: we needed a moment to let our minds follow the logic of her question. But then we laughed from our bellies because the alternative is to cry all day.

At some point we learn to stop asking "Why?" if only because we don't want to irritate the other people, but I hope that when we stop asking it aloud we continue to at least ask it of ourselves and to let the answers, or at least the pursuit of those answers, continue to guide us into the places where "Why?" cannot be answered.

While you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays! Buying books isn't consumerism -- you can never buy too many books!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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