Finding a common thread
The importance of asking why we do what we do
My parents often remind me of an annoying stage I went through as a child — one I think is common to all children just beginning to explore the world.
When I was about four years old, I would always ask, “Why?” after they told me something and then ask, “Why?” after they gave me an answer. This would continue until my dad would put an end to it by saying, “Because I said so.”
I remember never being satisfied hearing this answer, but nevertheless taking it in stride — largely because I had no authority to do otherwise. I’ve grown slightly more appreciative of the phrase now, as an adult, recognizing its value as a means of quieting a curious child. But there comes a point in our lives when we should no longer accept “because I said so” as an answer.
As an almost-20-year-old human being trying to decide what path my life should take, returning to this process of interrogation is a productive step. Too often, we fall into a routine in which we do things just because we know we are supposed to, or because those things are what we always have done. This leads to either a lack of purpose or a tendency to take truly meaningful things for granted.
This realization started during Spring Break when I traveled to southwest Virginia to assist with home repairs in the area. I met so many wonderful people — people who never received a college education, but still approached life with kindness and joy. I suddenly found myself asking why I was attending college in a way I never had before, having come from a high school where it was assumed college was the next step. Ever since, I have been challenging myself to ask why I am doing what I am on a daily basis.
Our daily activities are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We go to class, read and attend a meeting or two. But asking why you are doing each of these things is important. Why are you going to class? Are you really learning from that lecture? Are you just there because the professor takes attendance? Is there any point in you sitting there at all?
The answer to these questions will often lead to more questions. If you are in class because you need to learn the material for the test, why do you need to learn the material for the test? If you need to get a good grade on the test so you can get a good grade in the class, why are you trying to do that? Exactly why do you want to have a 4.0 GPA? If it is to get a good job, why do you want to do that? If it is to make money, what is the money for? You get the idea.
Of course, everyone has different priorities and ideas of what constitutes good reasoning for action, but I am finding it is easy to do things for the wrong reasons. When considering taking on new leadership positions or new activities, it is easy to say yes just to add another line to your résumé or bolster your ego. But it is a lot more meaningful to do these things because you care about what the position entails and you feel as though you have something to contribute.
What is a line on your résumé worth if it isn’t something you really care about? Likely, it will only lead to more things you don’t care about.
I may have no idea what I am going to do with my life at this point, but I still think it is important to have some thread that ties together everything I do — something to be working toward. In asking the reason behind our every action, we can begin to figure out what that common thread is. For me, the thread is my love of God and others, and I believe the reason behind everything I do should somehow connect to that.
While it may seem counterintuitive to use a four-year-old’s logic to improve our adult lives, I have begun to find that identifying why we are doing what we are doing brings about a wonderful sense of peace. Asking “why” constantly helps us explore the meaning behind our every decision, eliminate things not worth our time and point us toward the direction of a more purposeful life.
Kelly’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.