by Tom Fairman
These three little letters have a lot to answer for. They represent the doorway though which most discoveries are made and have led to many of the breakthroughs that make our lives so much easier. They are a wonderful learning tool in the classroom and their loss is to the detriment of the whole class when they are shut out or not allowed to be mentioned. This said, though, they are also a massive pain.
In a family home, the question of why stems from two main situations. The first occurs when a parent is asking a child to do something which needs to be done under tight time constraints, but the child is unwilling to obey immediately, preferring to seek the underlying motivations behind the command as if the understanding of why they need to brush their teeth will somehow make the situation more bearable. The second situation follows swiftly on from the first, but this time it is uttered from the mouth of the parent and is along the lines of: why do we have kids?
"Why?" is a question that is asked a lot when you take any decision; the larger the decision, the more it is asked. Changing jobs is a prime example. People are eager to know why you want leave, possibly making sure they have not done anything wrong or checking in case you have done something wrong. They also want to know why you are going to the next job, to see if the grass is greener or that they have made the right decision by staying. Or it may be just because they are interested in you! It is healthy to ask these questions of the big decisions, but sometimes it is healthy to stop and ask about the small ones as well.
Behavioural economics as a discipline has done much to try to undercover the underlying motivations that drive human decision making. If rationality in the form of pure utility maximisation does not hold successfully, is there something else that informs our decision making? We are a product of many biases and, as we can not stop to carefully consider every decision we make, we go with our instincts which are not always in our immediate interest. Sometimes it works out, other times it does not; more often than not we hide behind the excuse that we have always done it this way and so give up our individual responsibility for the outcome.
Invariably we appear to be driven by the rewards we perceive, which can be quantifiable, but more often are intangible. We act out of a desire to be seen to do the right thing, to gain the praise and respect of those we hold dear. We act to reciprocate their love or as a down payment for a future response. We act in a certain way because it is expected of us by our parents, our work or our churches in the hope of recognition, adulation or praise. Jesus speaks of receiving a holy man into your house because he is a holy man gaining you a holy man’s reward. It seems to be part of our character.
But why? Why do we need to see the rewards of our actions to make them worthwhile? Why do we need to see the students pass their exams to make the hours sacrificed worth it? Why do we need to see our kids grown up happy and content to make the middle of the night wake ups have meaning? Why do all of our actions need to be justified beyond just because? Why is it so difficult to act out of love for love’s sake, to care for caring’s sake, to laugh for laughing’s sake?
The quest for deeper meaning can lead to innovations and enlightenment, but equally it can mean we lose life itself. We act and react for different reasons and then in different ways depending on the day of the week. We go with our gut and inspiration because we cannot possibly sit down and fathom out every consequence of our actions. We try to act in love, to encourage those around us, not because it will work or be worth it, but because it is the right thing to do and because we are called to keep growing, keep learning, keep running the race until the finish. Somedays this is the only reason we have and faith steps in to fill the gap. Sometimes ‘why’ is not important.