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The death of 500 innocent people is tragic, but I didn’t know any of them. If they had died in an outbreak of Ebola in some country I barely knew, my grief would have been much shorter. The difference is that this time I thought about why it happened.
I know – I think I know – that the Libyan refugee crisis, like the Syrian refugee crisis, was created by the US and NATO. We bombed those countries; we armed extremist militias to overthrow their governments. We took functioning, beautiful places and turned them into poverty-stricken war zones, run by corrupt religious freaks.
No wonder people are fleeing. These are the kind of thoughts my mind has been running. “This is so wrong.” “Our leaders are criminals.”
How true these thoughts are is not the point, though I’m sure they’re not far off. It’s that ruminating about Why and looking at who to blame has increased my pain and decreased my ability to effectively respond. It keeps me tied to things already past, things I cannot change.
The Buddha called focusing on Why and on blame the “second arrow.” Life will occasionally shoot an arrow into you; that can’t be helped. Blaming oneself or others and agonizing why it happened is like shooting yourself with a second arrow.
Sometimes asking Why helps, as in, “Why is the car making that knocking sound?” Knowing why might help you change something or cope with something. If your boyfriend starts acting distant, it might be worth asking him what’s up.
Other times, most times in fact, “why” doesn’t matter. There’s nothing we can do about what has already happened. Why did your company downsize your job? Why did I get multiple sclerosis? Why did my partner Aisha fall in love with me? I can wonder, but what difference does it make? The point is deciding what to do now.
Sometimes “Why?” is less than unhelpful. With the most important things, there often is no Why that we can understand. That’s what the book of Job is all about. After Job suffers the loss of his family, his wealth, and his health, his friends gather to tell him what he did wrong. They say God must be punishing him for something. They think they know Why, as our doctors, leaders, and friends often do. “You ate too much; you worried too much; you didn’t work hard enough. Your culture is dysfunctional. It’s your fault.”
Job refuses to accept society’s version of Why. He asks God directly: “Why are you punishing me?” God says (paraphrasing here): “There is no reason. It’s not about you. This world is so much bigger than you that sometimes bad things are going to happen.”
Job’s asking why he was suffering was like an ant wondering why a human just stepped on him in the grass and crushed his thorax. There is no Why. Job accepts the unknowability of Why, and he heals.
Why is in the past, but What now? is just as problematic. It takes us to the future. When I heard about the bleaching of the Barrier Reef, I started asking, “What does this mean? Where are we going? What’s next?” The feelings weren’t anger as with the refugees, but fear. What irreplaceable part of Earth will die next?
The truthful, objective answer is that nobody knows, but many scientists say the outlook is not good. We could be facing extinction in the not too distant future. Other experts have a less pessimistic view, a longer time frame.
Miracles of science, interventions by aliens or Gods, massive social change or things we currently have no idea of could save our living planet. But it’s all in the future. Thinking about it now is like asking Why, a needless infliction of pain. It only helps to think about the future if we are doing something about it. And we can give saving Earth our best shot without having to know what the future holds.
There are times to ask Why, as when we’re exploring our own feelings. What now can be worth thinking about in terms of specific plans.
Otherwise, it’s worth letting go of Why and What now. Most of the time, when we’re thinking, “Why did this happen? What happens next? Where is this going?” we will not fully appreciate or observe what is happening now. When we classify things as good or bad, right or wrong, we cannot see them in their wholeness. We won’t appreciate them or understand them as well.
I think the best response to personal, social or global suffering is always to start with love and go where that takes you. Ask Why and What now when that helps you make a plan; otherwise just accept what is.
Next time you read a story or watch one on a screen, try not to form opinions, ask why about anything, or wonder where the story’s going for five minutes. Even if the characters are poorly drawn and the action makes little sense, don’t try to figure it out or judge it. See if the creators’ meaning becomes clearer to you, and the show more enjoyable when you just let it happen.
Likewise in life, can you take a five minute break from “good” “bad” “right” “wrong” “Why” and “Where’s this going?” You might be pleasantly surprised at how good it feels and how much more you can see
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