The Pesky Question of “Why?”

If there is a hidden blessing in this damned pandemic, it is the renewal of the question of “Why?”

Why do I “do” life the way I do?

Why do I “do” what I do?

Why do I spend my time doing THAT?

This forced pause allows for questions to emerge that can be life changing, leading to transformation. But those questions can prove to be disruptive, breaking our normal routines that are comfortable. And that may be the original sin…..Comfort.

The communal pause we have taken, or has taken us, raises a question that comes up at certain times of life, in a pesky way. By pesky. I mean troubling, getting under your skin, or as Alton Brown, my culinary philosopher would say, a “bother”. You become bothered by the question “why?”.

It happens when you’re a kid and some adult who has nothing better to say, asks you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

And it happens again after two years in college and you have not settled on your major, and your academic advisor, who is struggling to get tenure, presses, what do you want to major in while you are spending your parents’ money? Sorry, that was not my beleaguered advisor, but my dad.

Every so often, that pesky “why” reemerges, sometimes predictably, sometimes out of the cleat blue.

With the terminally cute intro of the year 2020 by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen, using a wonderful parody of Barbara Walters’ pronunciation of Twenty-Twenty by Cheri Oteri, who the hell knew what was in store for us?

I find myself asking what so-and-so (fill in the blank with relatives, political figures, writers) would say about this pandemic. For some reason, I would love to hear the take from my microbial fascinated biologist mother, or from my Grady-trained doc father-in-law. It would be insightful, and more importantly, funny. What would they say about this odd time?

And what can be done for and with the lack-of-luck Class of 2020? The disruption of graduation exercises put a highlight on the role of such rituals in our lives as they push the questions of existence of “what?” and “why?” out on the dance floor. What are you going to do next? And, why are you going to do that?

Graduation exercises mark the ending of one phase of life with the presumption of something else coming, the beginning of another phase: the end of high school with the presumed beginning of college; the end of college and the beginning of grad or professional school; the end of boot camp, and the beginning of deployment. That is where the Big Gulp should come: between endings and beginnings.

And the in-between time of summer was spent, bouncing around, wondering if you had made good decisions, even in the middle of making some very bad decisions. That in-between time is what we of the ritual type call the liminal time, as we are literally “between”, as we are paused.

This pandemic has caused a pause for many of us. Keeping us home, not venturing out into the world. Connected by Zoom and phone lines, interminable emails that make us pine for paper memos that we could touch….that we could wad up and crush, tossing into a trash can for messages doomed for incineration. It was a pause for a “why?”.

For some of us, our very jobs put us at risk, more so than normal. Working in a normally functioning hospital, or even in the normally organized chaos of an emergency room, we faced the fear of a real threat to our existence by a virus that we were not too sure about. We still aren’t, if we are being honest. It raised a deep question that we had pushed deep down, beneath the sedimentation of routine, and pension, and mortgage, as it asked the pesky “why”, and reminded us, some of us, of our lofty ideals that got us in this mess in the first place. Remember those noble goals of healing, helping, saving. Oh, yeah, I remember.

For others, there was little time for pause. Maybe a slight pause for fear as we got ourselves to work. It meant rendering service to our society, delivering our particular work in spite of the risks involved. While our remuneration was not consistent with the degree of risk we were entering into, we made our way to work, in grocery stores, to restaurants, in trucks, on buses, in order to keep our world turning. And, perhaps, naggingly, the pesky “why” came calling.

Why? Why do you do what you do? Why are you spending your time and energy doing what you do?

This is the basic human question of meaning that most of us confront at certain moments of our life and answer as best we can. Sometimes a disruption in life, due to disease, divorce, the loss of a job, or retirement, trots the pesky question out to bother us again. But who knew that 2020 would shout that question so loudly, so insistently?

For some, the pause to question “why” brought about a clarity that was shattering. I have talked to a handful of mid-career folks for whom this pause woke them up to the fact of their unhappiness in their work. Their life had gotten crazy and they were caught in a system that keep them moving so fast that they lost the ability to ask a probing question, particularly the taxing question of “why?”. Some have decided to change their jobs. their direction. Some have decided to listen to the proverbial question of “why?” and have found a fresh sense of commitment.

How’s it been for you? What “why?” has been dogging you?

Here is one dog that bounded my way, unanticipated.

I had a long talk with an emergency room doc, who was waist deep in COVID-19. He is used to the frantic pace of emergency medicine. Triage is his middle name. Cool, ice in his veins, some say cold, but I’m not buying. I know this guy. He stitched up arteries on the battlefield, held the hand of men who were bleeding out. He knows about death as well as I do and speaks of it clearly and cleanly, no platitudes, life and death….that’s how the scoreboard reads at the end of the game. Win, lose, back to play again the next day.

But when he called me a month ago, his voice was different. He still spoke in clinical terms that could be dictated into a medical record, but there was a crack. Not big, but enough to allow me entrance into his heart. He was facing that pesky “why?” that is not allowed in the rush of emergency, urgent care is the name. Now…..or never.

From the clinical description, he trailed off, and then, I heard him sobbing.

I was honored that he trusted me with his broken heart, as he said he had never seen this level of death. Body bags stacked,. refrigerated trailers waiting to receive the cargo, lined up in the side lot, out of the way, but not out of mind. Sixteen hour shifts, bunking in a break room because he didn’t want to expose his family. He grabbed sixteen minutes twice a day talk to his wife, trying to not let on where his head was at, how scared he was. He told me that the intensity was worse and more pressing than the battlefield, because the bullets weren’t flying in the OR, while the virus is, most def..

I know it was the long hours, his fatigue, the blood, both fresh and crusted on his scrubs, that allowed the pesky “why?” entrance into his psyche. But once in the room, it was pressing, intrusive, bothersome. This would turn out to be a brief encounter, enough to cauterize the bleed, to slow down the flow so he could make it through the dark night. It would turn into a number of sessions that dove deep into his soul. What does this mean? Why am I here? Why am I risking my life, a life that I love, with people that I love? Why?

I don’t know how this turns out for my friend. He’s still working his shift but taking care of himself. I did hear him say, emphatically, that he has some things to figure out. That pesky “why?” has him and will not let go. I’m betting on him to figure it out and glad I can be there to help.

If you are wrestling with a “why?”, take time to journal about it. Share it with a trusted other, or with a group. If you are needing some help, reach out to those who can give you the attention you need. A coach can give you some perspective that will give you some room to move, help you to discover some options you may not be seeing. A therapist might give you some relief, some clarity.

Funny thing about that pesky “why?”. Like COVID-19, it’s contagious. It’s catching.

2 thoughts on “The Pesky Question of “Why?”

  1. There is always a surge in babies born nine months after a power outage. I wonder if there will be a surge in life transitions after this pandemic? Will the results of asking your question show a spike in changes?


  2. I KNOW there will be a spike in divorces.
    Seriously, there has been a significant increase in domestic violence and suicide…no surprise. And a rise in substance abuse….the sin of comfort.


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