Who. What. Where. When. Why. How. These are the words at the foundation of human curiosity. They allow us to express our desire for information. They allow us to express our desire to know. And boy do I want to know.
I find myself stumbling over two of these words more frequently these days. As much as I would love to know the where and the what and the who of my future self, it is the why and the how that seem to matter the most. These two questions might just uncover the elemental nature of being – to expose the underlying force that moves the world.
Why am I here? How do I reach my goals?
But the distinction between these two words is utterly consequential and they require fundamentally different answers. Why tells us about purpose; how tells us about process. Why is focused on reflection; how focuses on movement. Why almost never has a satisfying answer. How, on the other hand, lends itself to answers. It holds itself firmly in the realm where answers can be turned into action. Why questions are also nearly impossible to fully answer. Not that you should restrain yourself to easy questions, but resolving an existential crisis is much easier when there are answers you can hold in your hand.
The Power of Why
The most useful thing I ever learned in school (besides, you know, reading and writing and math) was the concept of the Five Whys. The theory is that asking “why” five times can help you uncover the root cause of complex problems. Of course, I learned this in the context of post-conflict peacebuilding, but it works just as well for trying to understand my brain.
What you end up with is a map of causes and effects – it paints a big, complicated picture of life that can be divided into little chunks (or, in the peacebuilding world, slotted into a logical framework). These chunks can be easier to grasp and easier to focus on. I’m not overwhelmed by frustration with a work project – instead, I can focus on the linger emails I feel guilty for ignoring that are distracting me. Stepping back and interrogating a situation can provide perspective. It forces us to look at once at the big picture and the minutiae – the forest and the trees.
This is the also the trouble with why. When we ask the big questions, we are hoping for small answers. “Why do I exist?” isn’t a fair question. There isn’t a one sentence answer – if there is an answer at all. But the question itself is important. We need a sense of meaning, a sense of direction, a sense of momentum. This is where how comes in.
Turning Why into Action
I feel like my life is a big pile of whys at the moment as I try to get a better grasp on my place in the universe. But even when I find that rare nugget of why something is the way it is – I still have to follow it with a how question. Why am I overweight? Because my diet is similar to a teenage boy’s. How am I going to eat better? Why can’t I finish my book? Because I’m tired from work. How can I make sure I have more energy? Why am I so bad at video games? Because I have terrible hand-eye coordination. How do I practice shooting bad guys and slinging my grappling hook?
All of those how questions can lead me to an action – something I can do that resolves the bigger question. That’s how. It takes a why and makes it into a do.
The Real Question is Who
At the end of the day, the reason I’m even asking questions at all is the big one. The scary question we all face sooner or later: Who am I?
Not that I pretend to have an answer. But maybe I do?
The answer (it seems) is me. I’m learning to believe that every question is a piece to the Anna puzzle. Even asking the question tells me something about my values, and how I answer them says even more. These questions reflect my values – they reflect the things I care about and the things I need. Right now, I have more questions than answers. That is an uncomfortable place to be. I continue to think deeply about my privilege, about my skills, about my self-worth. I am trying to understand where my past choices have led me and how I can make more intentional choices for the future. More than anything, what I’ve learned is that every question has an answer – but not every answer is forthcoming. But we can’t stop asking.