‘Why’ is a spiky, sharp, penetrating word; a word that can stop you in your tracks. A question containing ‘why’ is rarely welcome unless you are a philosopher, (and everyone knows how annoying they are. Socrates was sentenced to death for asking ‘why’ one time too many). Young children, being natural philosophers, often ask why. Who hasn’t occasionally struggled to answer a child and resorted to the answer ‘just because‘ or even ‘because I said so‘? Woe betide the child who tries to give an answer to an adult ‘why’ question, though.
Because adult ‘why’ questions are usually rhetorical and often contain anger along with incomprehension. Yesterday, as I struggled to get back into the routine of working all week, cleaning all weekend, I found myself firing ‘why’ questions at a rapid rate, like this:
‘Why is the clean hand towel I put on the rail 5 minutes ago on the floor already? Why do people throw the middle of the toilet roll on the floor when they change it, when there is a bin not 1 metre away? Why can’t everyone put their laundry in the laundry basket instead of on the floor? Why aren’t the shoes in the shoe rack? Why are all these dirty cups all over the floor, instead of in the dishwasher? Why is everything on the floor? I have got backache!! Why am I talking to myself? No, literally talking to myself. Why has everyone gone out?’
When I trained as a counsellor for Childline, the first thing we were taught was never to ask a ‘why’ question. They tend to be unanswerable, or to imply blame and criticism (‘why did your stepdad hit you?’, ‘why do you think that?’). Instead, we were told to use ‘what, where, who, how’ – ‘what makes you think that?’ ‘what happens when your stepdad hits you?’ and most importantly ‘what is that like for you?’
I have found some of these counselling techniques useful in my own home life, when I actually am trying to be helpful rather than trying to imply blame and criticism, which I totally am here. I would only be able to use use alternative questioning sarcastically in this context:
‘What is like for you to lie on the sofa while I pick up your shoes and cups?’
or most definitely apportioning blame:
‘Who put this hand towel on the floor?’
These questions would involve singling out an individual person in the family, and this is not what my questions are designed to do. My ‘why’ questions are a howl of existential rage, to nobody in particular and to everybody in particular, and they just mean ‘why me?’ Why do I feel responsible for picking up all of this stuff, while nobody else does? I cannot believe there is a working woman who has not asked this question while shaking their fist at the sky.
Usually, I am too pragmatic to give in to existential rage (I spent at least 5 years of my twenties in that particular desert, and have no intention of going back there). Of course, there is a feminist discussion to be had here, but there’s very little point trying to have it with my kids. This will not get them off the sofa picking up their dirty cups. The only way to get them to do this is to ask politely. Every day. Over and over again, and to say thank you and well done when they finally do it (even though my inner feminist is yelling ‘why am I responsible for getting them to do this, and why am I saying thank you to them for picking up their own stuff?’) . The idea is that it will become second nature to them; it’s like training a dog. This is more difficult with my stepson than with my daughter – Pavlovian conditioning is not easy to do with someone who is in a different environment every two days, and with my husband – it may be impossible to undo 43 years of programming, but watch me try.
Those spiky ‘why’ questions, the ‘why mes’ that lodge in your throat and make everything taste bitter, can only be dispelled by the alternative question
‘Why not you?’
I remember the first time I heard this response, this variation on ‘why me?’ it stopped me dead. Why not me, indeed? If this is something that all or most women deal with on a daily basis, then why wouldn’t it also happen to me? Even if not, even if it’s only me, what makes me so special that it shouldn’t happen to me? Once I found that I couldn’t answer this question, I could move on to the more useful question, what am I going to do about it?
It seems, then, that the best antidote to the ‘why?’ question is its reverse: ‘why not?’ If you are going to argue with the universe, you have to be prepared for the universe to answer back.
Given that it’s a Sunday, I’m going to end with this familiar prayer, which seems to be what I need here:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference