I think the uncanny success of humanity is due to that one quintessentially human word, Why? Every animal asks how? – how do I find my next meal, how do I get out of the rain, how do I scare off this rival – but I don’t know if any other animal has turned its thought processes from the how to the why, at least not to the same extent. Why should I worry about food in the first place? Why do these delicious berries grow better in direct sunlight? Why does friction cause fire? Why is my meat easier to chew when I’ve put it in the fire for a while? Why do I keep getting sick? Why do I only see these animals here during a certain time of the year? Why don’t these bacteria grow as well near mold spores? Why does the earth keep revolving around the sun? Why do I keep thinking and reading and writing?
I believe all humans are questioners. We all naturally ask why. But why can be a two-edged sword, and not everyone has the impulse to the same degree. Why can be an immensely time- and resource-consuming – not to mention dangerous – question. How is usually much more practical and has more short term profit. In times or places where resources are scarce or dangers are many, how-questioners may be much better off than why-questioners. But when you think about it, how many great leaps forward for humanity can’t ultimately be traced back to a why? If we were still stuck in the how‘s, would we be living in trees and eating termites with sticks? I wonder.
Looking back on my life, it sometimes feels like I was a radically why-based questioner who was born into a subculture much more predominantly moderated and policed by how-questioners – and it’s meant that I’ve never fit in, not really. When the whole mindset around me was focused on the how – this is how we work and eat and sleep and go to church and read our bibles and pray – my mind was always preoccupied with the why‘s. Why do we read the Bible and not the Koran? Why does this part of the Bible seem to contradict that part? Why do we dunk older children when these other bible-followers sprinkle babies? Why does the Bible seem to have a fundamentally different view of the world than modern science portrays? Why do so many conservative bible-followers get so angry when you bring up the evidence for evolution? Why, why, why…
I was born into a loving, sincere, and traditional family, committed with all their hearts to the worldview they had received from trusted sources. It was predominantly a what and how world. All would have been well, except for the fact that I was born a why-thinking person, and my what– and how-thinking mechanisms were seriously underdeveloped. The result has been tears and frustration and general conflict. I think love still prevails. I try to remember that those with whom my relationship has been strained by my flights into unacceptable thoughts and opinions aren’t really reacting against me as a person. They’re upset because they’re genuinely concerned. They’ve always banked their security and happiness on their what‘s and how‘s. They sincerely fear for my wellbeing when they see my why‘s leading me away from their what‘s. I only hope they can recognize that I’m not trying to be offensive any more than they are. I’m just asking my own innate questions like they ask theirs. And it’s an inescapable reality that our internal questions are wired up differently.
I get excited when my questions lead me to new truths. They’ve banked their hopes and happiness on old truths passed down through generations. But my happiness comes from finding answers that lead me ever onward.
Maybe in the past I’ve been too easily offended when my family reacts with shock and sorrow to the things I’m learning. But this is how it feels to me: in a confusing and sometimes dauntingly complex world, learning something new helps my mind better know how to operate, which can help me solve my problems and live my life as a happier person. Now that I know about evolution, for example, I can think through and systematically test tons of new variables in search of a way to live more aptly. I can pattern my routines in a way that makes me a happier and better person. Knowledge gives me hope and power. So when you get offended by what is making me so happy, I take it as being offended by my happiness. By the true me. By the person I really am. It’s instinctual to take it as a personal rejection.
In a way, I think I’ve always felt an inexpressible frustration over how the concept of the “sacred” put us on an uneven playing field. My family’s understanding of the bible has always worked for them. It’s always given them a happy, stable life. The how of a meaningful life is so reliably sourced for them that they protect the source by all means. And that means cordoning it off with the fence of the sacred. Religious topics, bible stories, the doctrines of our Baptist upbringing – they were all sacred and therefore not subject to questioning. That was immensely important to my family. But to me, security and happiness depended on understanding why their truth was so certain. Why the seeming contradictions? Why all the uncomfortable elements in the bible? Why does my neighbor who was raised Jehovah’s Witness seem so confident about her own incompatible traditions? Because of the way my mind was wired, I genuinely couldn’t find the rest and security they all seemed to have without seeking out the answers to those questions. When they reacted to me they thought they were rejecting only my rebellious attitudes. I felt like they were rejecting who I fundamentally was.
I felt like I was always made to be something of an outsider for insisting on asking questions about the set of things that were supposed to be sacred and unquestionable. Even though I knew intellectually that my family loved me, it felt like a personal rejection of who I am. I learned that I couldn’t be my true self and be accepted. It felt like love came with a condition of hiding myself. I don’t think they realized how it felt to me or how much it was hurting me. So when I acted out during my teen years, I think they were befuddled. I don’t think they ever knew why I was doing it. And I don’t think I had the words to express myself or felt the freedom to do so at the time.
I don’t think my family ever realized how much I struggled to please them. I couldn’t stop asking questions, it’s true, not without letting my soul die. But I gave every ounce of effort I could muster to making their beliefs my own by conviction. I studied as hard as anyone. I taught myself ancient languages so I could study the scriptures and other early Christian literature. I gathered all the biblical data I could find and labored over ways to fit it all together without contradiction. I tried as hard as I could, for thirty plus years. Maybe they don’t know that in all that struggle, I was searching for a way to be pleasing to them while still being true to myself. I didn’t find that way, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
I’m optimistic about the future. I think love will prevail. I think family is forever. I think why-questioners can do some good in this world, even if they seem to cause problems wherever they go. I think my story might someday make sense. I think it will be beautiful, like all life is beautiful. I think it could help someone else, who could go on to help others. I think humanity is evolving and I think it may be for the better. I think if I keep pursuing the right questions I may stumble someday upon a valid answer or two. Until then, I’m enjoying the journey.