The REAL Question

Why would you build a cairn on a hiking trail?  (All pictures by Marylin Warner)

Why would you build a cairn on a hiking trail? (All photographs by Marylin Warner)

If you suffer from angst, why would you bury a golf club in its very own, actual plot in a cemetery?

If you suffer from angst, why would you bury a golf club in its very own plot in a cemetery?

Dear Mom,

You don’t realize it, but your common sense was often ahead of the times, before theories, debates, studies and research reached the same conclusions.

For instance, when I was growing up, if kids did something wrong, said something hurtful, or got into trouble at school, usually their parents asked these questions: “How did this happen?”~ “What did you do this time?”~ “Who were you with?” or “Who’s idea was this?”  Eventually you would also learn the answers to those questions as well, but your most important question, the one you asked quietly, seriously, and while looking into my eyes was this: “Why?”

You wanted to know why I’d done something, why I’d thought it was appropriate or the only option, and if I’d considered the consequences or the pain it might cause someone else. “Why?” was the question you asked about things I’d done, as well as things I should have done but didn’t do. (In that case, it was “Why not?”—again, with emphasis on the thought process.)

Guess what, Mom?  Your main-question approach has been identified as the essential question in focusing on obstacles or goals, and effectively solving problems or being successful in careers and life. Professor Julia Bayuk’s experiments at Delaware University demonstrated that focusing on the what and the how—without fully grasping the why—can actually work against achieving desired outcomes.

It’s mid-January and individual resolutions may be floundering or forgotten entirely. Maybe there was one word that was missing from the resolution. When we made the resolution or formed a plan for reaching our desires or goals, we probably  knew WHAT we wanted to accomplish and even HOW we planned to do it, sometimes with many specific steps. But if we didn’t fully explore and understand the real and personal WHY it was important and essential in our lives, our true motivation was unclear and we were hobbled at the gate even before the race began. In the Year of the Horse–and any year, actually–that’s an almost guaranteed failure.

Here are some other insights on asking the Right Question:

“What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” ~ Jonas Salk

“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” ~Bertrand Russell

“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” ~ Ursula K. LeGuin

“If you really want to know something, also ask WHY?”~ Mary Shepherd, paraphrased

Why do we create?

Why do we create? ~ Why don’t we try to create?

Why do we wait? ~ Why don't we wait?

Why do we wait? ~ Why don’t we wait?

Why do we keep trying after we strike out?

Why do some quit after they strike out, and others who strike out step up to the plate again and again?

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77 Comments

Filed under art projects, Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren

77 responses to “The REAL Question

  1. Why indeed? Little children often ask ‘why, why, why’ until we give up and reply in exasperation, “because, I said so”. The “Why…s” of life require so much patience but it’s something we need to consider more. Thank you for reinforcing the importance of Why. And, if you will excuse the terrible pun, if we put together a lot of why..s we become wise 😀

    • Great pun!
      I’m still smiling at your comment about little children asking Why? Why? Why? until you give up and say, “Because I said so!” Oh, I remember those days when Molly was little.
      But the real gift my mom taught me was that the who/what/when/where questions are factually important, but the WHY required true thinking and understanding our motives and ourselves.

  2. Don

    Loved the post Marylin. I remember an old mentor of mine saying. ” Remember, the power is in the questions not in the answers.” While in university a Scottish professor of mine, who had a profound effect on me and my thinking, would constantly say to us, “You need to compare, contrast and evaluate, always asking ‘Why’ as you do it.” I’ve never forgotten these two people and those words they uttered. Your Mom obviously was the kind of person who understood only too well the power in asking “Why” in life.

    • I think your Scottish professor and my mother were on the same page, Don. But she was a kindergarten teacher, and she was teaching 5-year-olds to think about why they did or didn’t do things. But she probably gently wove it in among the lessons of tying their shoes and learning to write their names and play together without pinching and spitting. 😉

  3. juliabarrett

    Yeah. Why is, and has always been, the big question, the starting point.

    • It’s essential in our lives, but also the most interesting and important part of our writing, Julia. If we don’t know the WHY of a character, the other elements can’t make it work without it.

  4. Yet again you and your wonderful Mom have hit the nail right on its proverbial head. Yes, yes, yes – you are so right – Why is the way forward and the simple way you lay it out here masks a whole raft of deeper meaning. I often find myself considering your posts long after I’ve read them. This one will be right up there, Marylin – thank you for your clarity.
    And I just loved Gallivanta’s final pun – so true 🙂

    • Thanks, Jenny. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it at all when my mom would sit and quietly watch and ask me “Why?” I often wished she’d just get upset, yell and send me to my room or say, “Wait until your dad gets home,” like other mothers. But now I truly appreciate her approach.

  5. Oh your mother is SO proud of you…i just know it. As parents, the ONLY thing we hope for our children is that they internalize our guidance and turn to it when we’re no longer able to give it. I’ve got tears on my cheeks from this most beautiful post.

    • That’s so sweet, Karen. Thank you. I wish my mother’s dementia didn’t keep her from knowing how many appreciate the wise and thoughtful things she did, but the quiet difference she made in so many lives speaks for her.

  6. Once again Marylin you hit us right between the eyes with what is most important, and this time in that tiny, yet oh so powerful word, ‘Why’. Your mom was ahead of her time in so many ways and her wisdom never fails to inspire me. You too inspire me with the excellent points you raise and the way you make us take a long, hard look at our lives and the way we are living them.
    In the Year of the Horse I find it a compelling read as you write so elequently about ‘hobbling up to the gate before the race has even begun’ simply because we haven’t even considered our true motivation.
    This is wonderful for me to read on a personal level as you know only too well my struggles with ‘falling at the first hurdle’ (and I had a horse race in mind when I wrote that!!). As soon as I considered the ‘why’ I got it!
    Superb post. Thank you.

    • I knew you would, Sherri. Your struggles at the first hurdle may give you pause, but they won’t stop you. You’re a strong combination of the UK and the US–and something in between that is uniquely Sherri–and you have a poignant, delightful way of taking a nugget of truth and turning it into a totally new gem!

      • You are very kind and lovely Marylin, and goodness, I just don’t know what to say, so I’ll say thank you so much 🙂 Yet what I do know is that I absolutely love the way you write and the unique and very soul-searching posts you send out. I admire you greatly and your wonderful mom too 🙂

  7. Dear Marylin, Thank you as always. Blessings, Ellen

  8. Such wise thinking and so well written.
    Iny time as priest one of the most important teaching moments for me was to help people see that the Bible is not about what and where it’s all about why.
    Like Jenny, I’ll be thinking about this post for some time.

    • My mother was a Sunday school teacher, Rod, as well as a kindergarten teacher. Sometimes when I’d help her with a group of young children, she would open little bags of home-made play dough, and while little hands rolled the dough and created balls and snakes and funny little shapes, she’d tell them a story. She’d stop before the end and ask, “How would you end the story?” And after they shared, she’d smile and ask “Why?” I was always amazed at the responses she received, even from very young children.

  9. Many times I’ve asked why, but these days I try to steer away from that and accept what is or approach whatever from a different angle. It’s a hard lesson to learn.

  10. My dad use to tell me that it is the quality of the question and not so much the answer that is so crucial to the learning experience. He would tell me to formulate the “why” myself before we had our talks. Amazing how much we owe our parents.

  11. Your thoughtful comments about “Why” made me think of Jeff Goldblum as Malcolm, in “Jurassic Park” as he questioned what Sr. Richard Attenborough (John Hammond) created. “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

    Your Mom was right. 😉

  12. Right now I could write a parallel post: Things I Want to Tell My Aunt. After more than 5 years of taking care of Aunt Ruthie at home, we have had to place her in a memory loss unit. It’s a wonderful place but even in her confused state she knows it isn’t home. I spoke to her just now, and she was very upset.

    She was a most important mentor of my childhood and helped me probe the “Why?” questions of life. I am glad you can spend time reading with your mother. Treasure the moments!

    • Oh, I do treasure the time I spend with my mother, Marian, I really do. I know all too well that with my dad’s Alzheimer’s and now my mom’s dementia can rob even the simplest joys. It’s also reminded me that life can rob any of us at any time, so every moment counts, period.
      Keep talking with your Aunt Ruthie, Marian; you might be surprised at how much it means to her and the difference it makes. But it’s very hard, too, and I’m sorry you’re going through this, and now you’re losing your childhood mentor. I know how sad that is.

  13. What a shame a lot more people don’t have your Mum’s common sense approach to life.Things might be so much easier.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • I think you’re right, David. She would be embarrassed to know we’re all heaping this praise on the good and wise things she did; she just saw herself as another person who was doing the best she could.
      Massive Hugs back to you!

  14. Profound and nostalgic as usual. My favourite of those quotes: “There are no right answers to wrong questions.”

  15. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Thanks, Marylin. I can certainly think of several aspects of life where I need to ask the question: WHY? Appreciate the clarity that provides!

  16. Arguably your best post yet and one worth bookmarking to reread at regular intervals.

    • Thanks, Andrew. I keep thinking of your picture of the bird with the spiky hair–like a kid’s Mohawk hair cut–and how he’s not what he seems. It’s a strange parallel, I know, but I really feel there’s a lesson there that if it weren’t for my mother’s dementia, she’d be sharing with us.

  17. So true that as we get older we don’t always consider the real reasons why we’re doing something – that really stopped me and made me wonder whether I’ve asked that question about the things I think I want / need to do.

  18. When we stop asking “Why” we stop learning and understanding. The more I read your posts, Marylin, the more I realize what a trail blazer your mother was. You make her proud, I know you make her very proud.

  19. Marylin, another brilliant post. Your mom would be so proud of you. It’s obvious you learned early on to ask “why”. 🙂

    • Sometimes, when I was small, I think I asked it too much. You know, to challenge WHY I had to do something. Then it later developed into a question to ask myself in order to understand myself, and that’s when it began to matter.

  20. Questioning what is believed by rote is the best antidote to depression. Excellent post, Marilyn! 🙂

    • Thanks, Deb. I didn’t know that it was an antidote to depression, but it makes sense. When my mother made me stop and analyze WHY I’d done or not done something, it was sometimes an uncomfortable process, and I was glad when it was resolved.

  21. SO profound and thanks for boosting me along with this question.

  22. Thought provoking post!
    I most definitely was a “why why why” kid and never really lost it sometimes up to the point of aggravating my family 😉
    Loved the “hobbling up to the gate before the race has even begun” without even considering our true motivation. Good advice when entering the year of the horse!

  23. I’m smiling as I imagine Mary asking “Why?” to the children she taught. Working with children every day, I get to ask that wonderful question often, and their answers are always entertaining, and sometimes profound. I also love the challenge of answering a child’s “Why?” — seeing that look of understanding and satisfaction is precious.

    • I agree, Darla. Never ask a child a question unless you’re prepared to be amazed or amused; kids come up with the strangest answers, but there’s often a strain of true genius or creativity woven somewhere within the thinking. You have to appreciate the way they see the world.

  24. Molly

    I don’t remember Grandma proding with the WHY? question…BUT, I do remember her being the most patient in answering all my WHY? questions as small child. As most would agree, you can only answer so many why?why?why? questions from children, before you resort to either “BECAUSE!” or “I AM NOT SURE!”…..but not Grandma, she would just continue to answer as completely as she could in her very patient and calm manner.

    A great quote about WHY, from Friedrich Nietzche “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

    • You and Grandma have always been on the same wave length, Molly. Even when you were very young, you would work on some project or a common task with her, and after awhile you two would move in tandem and even finish each other’s sentences. Yep, the bloodline is very strong!

  25. Jane Thorne

    I would have loved to have been taught by your Mum, Marylin. There is so much love behind her approach. Such wisdom with little ones, makes for wise and loving adults. Just look at you. 🙂 Xx

    • Oh, thank you, Jane. Sometimes I think I tried her patience, but she’d take a deep breath, sigh, and then try again or move on to another opportunity.
      If you wanted to be truly amazed, the best times to watch my mom was when she was distracting a toddler from a tantrum or calming a colicky or fussy baby. And she could carry on long, meaningful conversations with very young ‘talkers’!

      • Jane Thorne

        Your Mum reminds me of my Great Granny, endless patience with all, especially little ones. She also had the gift of remembering what is was like at any age. My ex.husband’s Nanny was like that too. I learned so much from both these wonderful women. 🙂

      • I think you captured it perfectly, Jane. These exceptional women didn’t forget what it was like to be a child…or any age. That empathy made them special…understanding and wise.

  26. “Why” is the question of life. It goes deep and with it the answer, if an answer is possible.

    • Absolutely, Jodee. And the best way to learn from our mistakes is to learn why we made them in the first place, though sometimes I wished my mom had just given me a time out or some punishment instead of making me ‘think’ about what i’d done. 😉

  27. dianabletter

    Marylin, once again, great post. It reminds me of the person struggling who asks, “Why me?” and someone replies, “Why NOT you?” That takes the sting out of the self-pity. Instead of asking why we don’t have this or that, we can ask ourselves, How can we move ahead with what we do have?

  28. Great post Marylin, this would stay with me for a long time!
    🙂

  29. Love the quote by your Mom, “If you really want to know something, also ask WHY?”
    The next time my grandkids do something wrong, I’m going to ask them “Why?” in addition to “How did this happen?”
    A very thought-provoking post Marylin!

  30. It’s amazing what you’ll learn, Theresa, believe me. We think we know it all when we learn who did something and what they did…we can be very surprised when we ask–and give grandchildren the time–to answer the “why?” details.

  31. Thanks for sharing your Moms Quote , WHY ?
    Very Touching question and a very good disciplinary word 🙂

  32. Such an important question. And we have to remember to ask it of ourselves too. “Why did I do that? Why do I want that?” and so forth. Wonderful to read the discussion here as well.

    • It really is a personal question for all of us, Ellen, and not just a question for parents to ask their children.
      It’s a valid point and a good reminder for us; we need to ask ourselves WHY we do what we do and WHY we want certain things.
      Thanks for the input, Ellen.

  33. Jim

    Thanks for another thoughtful blog, Marylin. Taking time to answer the ‘why’ questions for children is important, noting Molly’s above comment on her relationship with Grandma Mary. When I was a child, frustrated adults often answered my numerous ‘why’ questions with, “Because I said so,” or “You’re too young,” which frustrated the heck out of me. Okay, maybe sometimes I was just being a nuisance. 🙂

    • Oh, no, Jim, even as a child you couldn’t possibly have been annoying! 😉 Maybe it’s one of the reasons you’re such a good, patient, and understanding dad and grandpa. You listen to kids–really listen to them–and answer their questions.
      “Why?” doesn’t throw you off your game!

  34. Fantastic post Marylin! I am a question girl and especially love “why”! I find myself asking my three children Why so often, when they’ve done something they knew better than to do, and when they’ve just been themselves or done something good. Thanks for the justification to continue to ask why and to encourage my three children to always ask why! Blessings to you my friend! Robyn

  35. I really like your additional “Why?”, Robyn, when your children have done something good. Sometimes when our children (and grandchildren, and all children) do something really good, it’s for reasons we’d never guess, reasons that have a special meaning we can learn from when they tell us “why” they did what they did. Good idea!!!

  36. Beautiful post, Marylin. Asking the right questions is the first step toward change. Sometimes I struggle to know just what question to ask in order to go deeper in my understanding. As a kid, however, I often asked “Why?” But as an adult my ego gets in the way. “I should know this,” I reason, even when I don’t. So, thank you for the reminder to keep asking why.

  37. Did any mother never ever reply her inquisitive kid with “because I said so!”? lol
    It’s amazing reading your posts and getting flashbacks of the unique ways of my mom when I was a kid.

    • Thanks for your comment! My bet is EVERY mother at some time put an end to the repetitive “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” responses from her children.
      I’m glad if you have flashbacks of your own mother after reading the posts about mine. I think there’s very often a common denominator in all of our growing up experiences. Please visit and comment again!

  38. Every time there’s another terrorist attack, or a shooting at a school or shopping mall, I hope they catch the people responsible, and catch them alive — not just in the interest of justice, but also to find out why? We always hear about the how and the who of these incidents, but we almost never get any kind of explanation. Even an irrational one would be better than nothing.

    • I’d like to know the “why” of these attacks, too, IF we’d get honest replies.
      I hate to admit this, but really, given the choice between maybe getting answers or quickly ending their terrors by having them shoot themselves or being shot by someone else in self-defense, I’d take the latter.

      Colorado is still racking up the expenses of preparing to prosecute the Theater Shooter in Aurora and also paying for his ever-changing public defense, and it’s been more than a year without any specific trial date because of all the postponements. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have a clear or honest “why” in the end, any more than we’ll ever have a true and total “why” about the Sandy Hook school killer.

  39. I love those questions in the second paragraph. That is how “the conversation” after the event developed and unfolded. A lot of lessons in those important questions.

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