Three simple letters forming the most powerful single word in our language. Certainly “yes’ and “no” are also very small words with significant power, but they both apply power in a finite manner. The word “why” gives power to anyone from the two year old incessantly repeating the question in an effort to understand to the parent questioning their child about a foolish decision to the 80 year old wondering about the reason they have to leave their lifelong residence and independent lifestyle. “Why” is expansively liberating in our effort to seek knowledge and breadth of experience as we strive to improve ourselves as individuals, organizations and societies. Yet it can also help us focus our efforts as described by Simon Sinek in “Start With Why?”
However, seventeen years ago today, I learned the crushing negative power of this easily overlooked, underappreciated three letter hammer. On this date in 2000, a year with great expectations globally, I received a phone call somewhere between 2 and 3 AM informing me my father had taken his own life. Seven days into a new year, a new century, a new millennium, I lost all strength in my legs and sat on the toilet in our master bathroom unable to believe the words my mom tried to say but couldn’t so the on-scene police officer took on the burden of telling me what happened. The first word that came to mind was “Why?”
That unanswerable question continued to drill into my brain as I prepared to travel home, during the flight, throughout the first day of my time back in Wisconsin trying to console my mom, siblings and other relatives. It was debilitating, frustrating, infuriating, crippling to all of us mentally, physically and emotionally. At one point during the first two days, I went to the morgue and asked to see my dad. The officials wouldn’t let me see him for good reasons that I just wouldn’t accept at the time because I was thinking and acting on emotion in opposition to their logic and experience. Again that mind worm “Why?” penetrated over and over both in my head and verbally as I got angry with the police and doctors. It was at this point that I realized how absolutely powerless I was in this situation because I was letting this unanswerable question debilitate me, frustrate me, infuriate me and cripple me. I stopped asking that question about my father’s suicide that moment and gradually my strength-physical, mental, emotional and spiritual-returned to me so that I was able to lead my family through the difficult steps needed to bury my father and move through the grieving process.
I’m not going to lie and say I never again asked that question about that event, but when it does seep into my mind and start to torture me, I immediately stomp it out. It’s negative power that I will not let crush me anymore. I love the word “why” for so many reasons, mostly the power it gives me to learn and teach. As a former linguist, I appreciate and adore the value of words and their precision in use. All words exist for a reason and can be used for purposes greater than communication. Why is one of those words and even the nefarious aspect of this word exists for a reason. I just refuse to let it own me ever again.