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Why?

December 18, 2012

This is a writing blog. It doesn’t traffic in politics or current affairs.

And yet, one of the great wonders and curses of humanity is the need to understand why. It’s not the opposable thumbs that make us different. It’s the ability to ask why, and then to seek answers to that question.

If you’ve ever been around a young child, you know the joy and the curse of why? Children ask the question. Then, when they’re given the answer, they ask it again. And when that answer’s complete, they ask it again. Eventually, adults get to the only answer there is.

Because.

Or, to quote John Denver, if there’s an answer it’s just that it’s just that way.

That answer never feels right. Except for sheer fatigue, most adults don’t like to give that answer. And the vast majority of us, adults or children, don’t like to get that answer, either.

Sometimes, though, it’s the only answer there is.

Tragedies come in all sizes–from the loss of a job or the crumbling of a marriage, to the cancer diagnosis everyone feared, but hoped against. To news like what happened last week.

Why?

If there’s an answer it’s just that it’s just that way.

Except we don’t like that answer, and as writers, we can do things to try to make sense of the questions that don’t seem to have an answers. The earliest stories were told to answer the unanswerable. Where did we come from? How did we start? Why are we here?

More recent stories try to answer questions that aren’t quite as broad, but no less cosmic. Why do fools fall in love? What can we do with that spare set of handcuffs that used to hang from the rearview?

Why would someone shoot up a school?

Writers have tried to answer all those questions. Jodi Picoult wrote Nineteen Minutes about the last one. It was a good read. But it still doesn’t answer the question. It just adds some more theories to the mix.

Scientists ask why so they can understand our universe. Novelists ask why so they can understand our souls.

With all the advancements we have, neither’s come close to cracking the ultimate answer. And they probably never will. Because with each new answer comes the same question.

Why?

Every story written guides us every so slightly toward an answer more satisfying than because.

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