8 March 2017
I can remember, when I was a parent of young children, how challenging this question could sometimes be. And how easy it was to get irritated, not by the question or the questioner, but by my own inability to answer, to explain some of the bizarre and – frankly – stupid things that grown-ups did. It was easier to use trite phrases like “Just why!” or “You’ll understand when you’re older”, particularly if we were on a crowded bus and there was an audience eager to hear “how I was going to get out of that one.” Particularly if the question had to do with where babies come from or why we weren’t now speaking to Uncle Fred. “I don’t know” didn’t really cut it.
Yet those pure questions are full of the wisdom of innocence, fabulous gifts for our rationale or our conscience to work on, fuel for our decision-making if we choose to use it.
I’m struck how important “Why?” is now. It is so easy to react against people, events, statements and actions, to go into that place in ourselves which is filled with anger and fear, which consumes all of us and stops us from seeing and hearing anything beyond our own hurt. And it’s absolutely natural; we are momentarily all-consumed by the pain when we stub a toe or twist an ankle but then, after the initial shock, we have a choice. We can be angry that this has happened to us or we can ask ourselves why we fell over or bumped into something, why we briefly lost our concentration or dropped our guard. We probably won’t learn much from the first reaction, we may from the second. We can reinforce the anger/fear in us or we can appreciate the learning.
When 9/11 happened and the world was changed forever, I was desperately sad for those who lost their lives and I shared the sense of disbelief and outrage that engulfed the US. After a while I asked myself: as a developed, seemingly civilised society, what had we done, what had the Americans done to make it possible for someone to conceive, justify, plan and execute such a dreadful act? What had we done to be so hated? How had we co-created this cruelty? Why had this happened?
It wasn’t possible, I felt, to simply retreat into the briefly comforting shell of anger, or to occupy the reactive high-ground with our eyes tight shut to the causations. Nor was hitting back going to solve the underlying problem, the fundamental issues that were the cause. We needed to “why?” the situation, to dig deep into what we had perhaps contributed to birthing that searing, messianic anger.
Now we have other situations to ply with that simple but essential question. Why? Why is Syria being destroyed? Where did the lineage of hatred come from that is fuelling that ghastly situation? Can we trace it back to Imperial interference in the Middle East in the 20th Century. Or the shame heaped in Germany after the First World War? Should we go back as far as Ishmael and Issac?
Why did the UK vote to BREXIT? What really lay behind the (actually quite narrow) majority to leave the EU? Can we reliably blame the anxiety over immigration or is there really a deeper disquiet, a distrust of the so-called Westminster Elite? How was it that Farage was able to so thoroughly spook Cameron into calling for a Referendum that clearly he wasn’t prepared for unless it returned the status quo? Why weren’t we doing something about the underlying causes before the Referendum, rather than leaving it to a misinformed electorate to knee-jerk in an ill-prepared plan to undo decades of development and co-operation? Why?
Meanwhile, across the pond, following a telling mirroring of our own, UK pre-occupations, is it enough to dismiss Trump’s win as the result of an electorate fearful for its future, bitter at the dereliction of disappeared opportunity, new and unfamiliar societal changes, and anger at the political establishment that encouraged the disintegration of old, American Dream “certainties” in the face of opportunist globalisation? Can we leave it there?
I think not. We have to go deeper. We have to get beyond the fury – stoked up every day passing the lines of empty, abandoned factories and homes on the way to the corner store. We have to ignore the easily inflated indignation of a media desperate to maintain ratings and readership.
Curiosity – purposeful curiosity which informs, as opposed to idle curiosity which sometimes merely titillates – is one of our most valuable human qualities.
Curiosity can lead to a thirst for knowledge, for understanding. In turn, this can lead to respect and – perhaps – compassion. Maybe compassion is the route to reducing our fear and its companion anger.
So even if we don’t fully understand the causations, the hurt that leads to cruelty, at least we could search for a better and less destructive way of reacting to hatred, perhaps we could learn from those it is so easy to call our enemies, perhaps we could look at and maybe heal our own hurt.
So I’m for curiosity. Particularly if it leads to more wisdom. As Franklin D Roosevelt once said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” His words are perhaps prescient just now, as the world faces some hard choices ahead.