The Problem with “Why?”

“The experience of nothingness is now the point from which every reflective man begins his adult life.”

– Michael Novak

The majority of our actions are not conscious decisions. As much as we like to think about ourselves as fiercely independent, much of our behavior is determined by our culture.  I am certainly not the first person to question why certain things happen in our culture.  The more I began asking why certain things happen without a real reason, the more I was struck by a desire to find something true or meaningful.  This is what drew me to the book, The Search for Meaning: A Short History.

The author, Dennis Ford, describes the great melancholy that overcame Leo Tolstoy as he pondered the meaning of his life in My (A) Confession.  This is especially significant because Tolstoy was a successful creative (author), owned his own land, and had a healthy family.  I have often looked up to creativity as something mythical that could provide our aimless lives with meaning.  However, the great Tolstoy was still asking “why,” and the problem with “why” is that there are no good answers.  Most of the things we do, believe, or choose, even those not promoted by our culture or society, do not have a logical path that makes them the correct thing. For example, why are people born in America more likely to be Christian than Buddhist? It isn’t because Christianity is inherently better in some way than Buddhism; if that were the case, we would expect all countries to be Christian. The truth is that many of us believe simply because that is how we were raised and is what we grew up around.  I , being the constant contrarian, discarded my religious beliefs for that very reason.  I remember being in middle school and needing to complete a project on what I believed.  I created some fantastical, mutant version of a Christian creed with armies of angels fighting evil in a netherworld.  I wasn’t sure if there was one or many god(s). When my dad saw what I had written, he suggested that I look at the Apostles’ Creed and helped me make some revisions.  The only reason I believed, and I truly believed around the age of 16, what because that is what I was raised to believe.  Once I asked “why,” the “choice” seemed so arbitrary to me that it lost all meaning.

Hypothetically, choices are tools which promote individual meaning, but when there is no true justification for one’s choices, they begin to feel hollow.  This promotes the idea that even when we “escape” our culture and have the freedom to choose, our choices have no meaning.  The feeling of nothingness can lead one longing for ignorance or delusion; however, one cannot go back from pondering the truth.  To make the melancholy worse, seeking the truth and questioning culture marks the seeker as an outsider.  Our much-maligned culture may exist to protect us from the feeling of nothingness that can be so maddening.  However, we are still left with the idea that there may be some Truth behind the mask of culture.

I do not know the answer, but the book did make me contemplate whether my search for liberty is a misguided notion.  If I reach my idealized status of free from the constraints of modern society, I am afraid that I might be left with complete nothingness. Indeed this concept is not new, Erich Fromm published Escape from Freedom in 1941.  The book which postulates that when left completely free, humans feel hopeless and willingly submit to authoritarianism, destructiveness, and/or conformity in order to escape freedom. However, I will forge ahead as I am drawn to the notion of a universal Truth or an innate desire within me (completely separated from culture) that defines who I am.

I will admit I haven’t found anything that really means much of anything to me, except for the relationships with others who think differently, which could be seen as my own counterculture (culture).  I hope the rest of the thought-provoking pages of Ford will provide me some guidance and perspective.

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