Sunday, 22 February 2015

.010 The Question and Space of "Why"

I spend a large portion of my week taking care of children. Just over two months ago I was learning from slideshows and lecture notes, and now I've gone straight back to the basics. These smart, wild, hilarious little humans have a way of opening my perspective through their raw honesty and mistakes. They always surprise me with their perceptive questions and the way I learn about life when I spend time with them.

I'm trying to teach one of these boys that other people can't read his mind. He has a very distinct vision of how he thinks things should go, mostly in the world of his imagination, and if we unintentionally mess with that, the world crumbles. We go from carefree bliss to emergency situation in less than two seconds. It keeps us alert, to say the least. We're working on it.

It reminds me of myself, sometimes. In my head I have all of these dreams and goals and I have a general plan about how to get there. I can get ahead of myself, though. I can write out my future like it is fact, rather than remembering that life is unpredictable and, really, nothing goes exactly according to plan.

It is easy to get upset when your plan changes, though. When you think you are on one track and suddenly it seems to swing completely off course, it is easy to switch into emergency mode. When you are so focused in one direction, it is hard to imagine that another way can possibly exist. When we're stuck in that place, the first question to hit the air is usually "why."

 Why me? Why this? Why now?

Why. Why. Why. It can drive your mind in circles.

The space of "why" is a tough one because there aren't really any rules of how to navigate it. I've been thinking over this one for a long time. The other day (and this is going to completely expose the nerdy, boring things I sometimes do in my spare time) I was reading through one of my English criticism textbooks, and I came across a chapter that talks about how to read intelligently and critically. Suddenly, the dots connected and I realized that what I was reading directly related to working through the space of "why."

So lesson #1: do not discount the wisdom of your textbooks. They have a reputation for being dry and boring but once in a while they contain slices of profound truth.

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In English criticism, we talk about three ways that we can interpret meaning from a text. One way is to try to guess what the author is trying to communicate, as if there was another hidden layer to the text. This angle tries to come up with some deeper meaning to the text based on what the author might be indirectly saying.

The second way we can read a text is to create our own meaning. We all have experiences in our lives that sometimes connect to something we are reading and, because of that, the text can mean something very individual to us. The author probably didn't write it thinking of your exact situation, but the way you read it is interpreted through the lens of your circumstances or your life or however you are choosing to personalize it.

The third way is to just look at the text itself. We don't cloud things over with trying to figure out what the author was trying to say and we don't add our own experiences into the text. We take it at face value. The text is the text in its raw form.

What I mean by all the above is that there are three things involved when we encounter a text: the author, the reader, and the text itself. In the same way, when we are analyzing our life circumstances- and I'm going to talk from a Christian perspective, here- there are three things involved: God, you, and the situation. You can take this to three different extremes if you follow one singular approach.

1. God (in place of the author): We can try to understand God too much. We can overanalyze and attempt to tease out a metaphysical reason for what we are going through. We wrestle with pinpointing exactly what God is up to. We sometimes chase "signs" or assign a deeper meaning to mundane instances. In this place, we say things like: "maybe God is doing this because of..." or "if this happens, that must mean...." We don't know God's mind, though. We can only see what we are given in the present circumstance.

2. You (in place of the reader): In this extreme, the focus is all on you. You must have done something to deserve this. You made a mistake. It's all your fault. This circumstance is happening specifically to you because it is a punishment or a consequence. You burden yourself. You turn all the connecting incidents into some kind of link in a chain. It's all on you.

3. The situation (in place of the text): This is where the situation becomes everything. It is all you can think about. It blows up to an overwhelming and disproportionate size. Suddenly everything is affected by what is happening. You can't see God and you can't see yourself or anything else properly beyond what is happening to you in the moment.

So what are you to do? You're hashing through the nasty space of "why." How do you get through it?

Two things. First, I'm a person who values balance and I think that one approach, both in literary criticism and in life, can be restricting. I think that we have to learn to develop a balance of looking at God, you, and the situation as described above. That means building up a layer of prayer and talking to wise people and looking deeper at yourself. It means asking hard questions or maybe allowing yourself to grieve or listen openly. You, God, the situation- you've got to circle the angles to grasp a full picture.

Second. In my textbook, I came across a list of questions to consider when we, as students, approach a reading. Two questions seemed appropriate to ask while working through a tough spot in your life as well. I substituted the word "situation" for "text":

Question #1: Is the piece of the situation you are looking at the whole of the situation?

Often we start to ask "why" while we are in a period of waiting. We don't know the outcome yet, so we frantically try to build up something solid to stand on. We like security. We fear the unknown. We try to create stability through probing for understanding. This is where the "why" question is rooted.

When the boy I'm babysitting has a meltdown, it is often because he only sees a part of the whole. He only sees a slice of the overarching picture, whether that is because of a narrow perspective or intense emotion or whatever. He often gets so wrapped up in a detail that he cannot see beyond the present moment or what he is feeling at that second. If he would quit locking onto the little thing that is frustrating him, he would probably see that we're not all against him, or that the situation is actually fair, or that he's just hungry and that is why he's in a bad mood.

So maybe you are only seeing a part of the whole right now. Yes, that part can be absolutely painful sometimes. You might have to pause and grieve or yell or breathe sometimes. You might feel like you are crawling through. At that moment, someone telling you that "this too shall pass" might not sound helpful. The truth is, though, that you are where you are and you are probably not at the end yet. That end might make sense and reveal a reason for the situation, or you might get to the end and still not really understand why it happened. You might understand more about yourself or about God because of it, though. That doesn't exactly make it better or always worth going through, but it can develop you as a person. There is much of the road to walk, still.

Question #2: Do aspects of the situation have obvious connection? (parallels, contrasts, irony)

This question might not help you find out why, but it might help develop your character through the "why" season. The way this happens for me is that usually when I go through hard situations, it teases out a part of my character that I need to work on. (Examples: assertiveness, leadership, integrity, relationships, self-confidence, trust, etc)

As time goes on, I'll notice that I keep coming up against places where these weaknesses get tested. These are the parallels and contrasts- and I have the choice to figure out how to become better in these places, or to sit back and stay the same.

For example, in grade 12 I knew that I had leadership skills that I was simply allowing to stay dormant. I also knew that I was letting myself be quiet and shy in a very selfish way. Then I was voted to be co-editor of a student literary journal near the end of first term. That prospect absolutely terrified me. It meant speaking up and making decisions and having opinions and managing teams of people. I wanted to stay in the background with all of my heart. I almost laughed when I found out because it was the exact thing that I didn't want to have happen to me (irony). The situation presented itself at the same time as I was wrestling with some of my own (directly related) insecurities and I knew that it couldn't be just a total coincidence.

I could have said no. However, I knew that this was an opportunity to develop my character. I knew there was potential there, as terrifying as it was. I knew there was a high risk of failure. I also knew that, realistically, I'd probably make some mistakes, learn from them, and make it through. So I said yes. That experience changed me in profound ways. It was uncomfortable and stretching and stressful at times, but on the other side I gained confidence, a better sense of how to be a leader, new friends, and so much more.

Of course, I had a choice in that example. Sometimes we find ourselves tossed into places that we never would have signed up for voluntarily and we can't get out of it. But you can find a way to get through it. I refuse to say "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" but there is a reason that phrase is as cliche as it is. There is a wisp of truth in it.

In some situations, though, that phrase is almost insulting. In the middle of deep grief or a disaster, it doesn't help to think that this is all for a reason. You don't need reasons or rational answers at that point. You need people to surround you and you need space to allow yourself to grieve and heal.

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Finally, aside from those questions, a little wisdom for the journey from English criticism, slightly paraphrased by me.

"It is probably best not to interrupt your reading to work more mechanically through a checklist of questions. Better, in such circumstances, to refer to such a list after. At a later stage in your thinking, you may be able to fill out your ideas by comparing the viewpoint you have developed with other perspectives..." (18)

What does this have to do with anything? Well, usually we ask the question "why" when we are right in the middle of a hard place. We stop and want answers. We demand clarity. The problem is that we aren't at the end yet. Usually things make more sense when we look over our shoulders. Sometimes we just can't know why at the time because it would just confuse us or overwhelm us more. We don't often get clarity through banners in the sky, as nice as that would be. Usually "why" gets answered "at a later stage" when our perspective has changed enough to understand it.

To gain understanding, you must move forward. You might be sprinting or limping or even crawling. You might even have to pause and be still or get yourself together, but you must move forward somehow. Clarity will come: although sometimes the clarity we want isn't the "clarity" we get in the end.

"Finally, how can you deal with having no information with which to answer a given question?

First, you should not see this as a permanent setback; a question in need of an answer identifies something specific to look into, and there are many ways of finding things out.

For many questions we ask, no single, definitive answer exists; only a range of answers put forward by other people who have asked and investigated the same questions before. Such answers may be immensely informative and insightful.

Reading for 'meaning' is a matter of interpretation rather than tracking down a single correct answer" (18-19)

Sometimes there is no reason why. Sometimes bad things simply happen. It's not you. It's not God punishing you. It is simply the ugly, broken, unfair world we live in. I mean that with the deepest sympathy.

"There are many ways of finding things out." It might be a phrase you read. It could be a picture or an event or any kind of epiphany. "Why" isn't a bad question to ask. It just isn't the last question you should ask. There are many ways to gain an answer. There are many questions other than "why."

There are older, wiser people who have walked the road before you. Seek out those people, ask honest questions, and value their responses. It might not give you solid answers, but it can give you an idea of how to move forward, or even just the comfort of solidarity. It is community that helps us through these hard spots.

What this all comes down to is that the answers are not always the most important thing. Answers aren't always the comfort we are seeking. The journey is the substance.

Sometimes the answers come quietly, ushered in with the small grace of today.

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When you ask "why," what you really want is a road map. You want to see what is next. You want to know you'll be ok. You want to grab onto something solid while the ground is shifting and rocking underneath you.

In a way, we're all like the seven year old having a meltdown when something doesn't go our way because, when we are reminded that security is often an illusion, our lack of control scares us. Instead of dissolving into a panic, though, what is more helpful is learning how to work through the situation. Just like the seven year old who needs space and time and discipline in order to work through the problem, we might need to learn to be flexible, or change an old habit, or simply allow ourselves gentle space to process what is going on and make a new plan.

I've always been taught to take things one day at a time. So today, look at what you have and start there. The "why" will work itself out as the days stack up, and one day in the future you'll look over your shoulder and realize that you made it through.

Sometimes, in that place, "why" doesn't even matter so much anymore.

The textbook:

Montgomery, Martin, et al. Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.