It is one of the most common questions in the English language. In my office, it is often loaded with more emotion than any other. Why? Why does my child do that? Why is he that way? Why did this happen? Some questions are huge, some seem rather trivial. Psychologists who focus on behavioral change similarly work with parents to understand why a behavior occurs so that we can teach children a better method to achieve a particular goal. But too often, we as parents get so bogged down on the question of why, and never move onto what is next.
Recently I found myself in the office with a mother of a child diagnosed with moderate mental retardation (MR). Like up to forty percent of children with MR, there was no clear medical reason for the deficits that this child displayed. Years of appointments had left this mother feeling disappointed and discouraged that nothing could explain what had happened. As we sat there, tears rolled down her face as she continued to wonder aloud if there was some medical test or genetic screening that could provide an answer. The mental anguish and physical strain from this unresolved issue had taken its toll.
Years ago, researchers Camille Wortman and Roxanne Silver performed a series of pioneering studies. They asked thousands of people to explain how they had dealt with tragic events in their lives, whether it is the death of a loved one, incest, chronic illness, or other circumstances. Three general groups seemed to emerge. Those who had come to a simple causal explanation for the tragedy had generally done well. Those who had never looked for a clear explanation, but simply moved forward seemed to also remain resilient. But those who had continued searching for the answers to “Why did this happen?” and “Why me?”, and never found a satisfactory reason, struggled the most. In some ways, they had never moved on. The authors noted that although causal thinking is critical to our species, it can lead to serious hardships when dealing with tragedy. Continued searching may only result in further heartache, failed relationships, and the loss of health and well-being.
From an early age, many of us began to form a vision of how our life was going to look someday. We saw our children growing up, going to college, and getting married. We imagined ourselves growing comfortably old with our spouse. We envisioned our careers unfolding in particular ways. It all seemed so clear until misfortune and suffering came. The purpose that once was evident suddenly lacked clarity. Finding meaning seemed impossible. Then came a choice. Either accept a new vision, one that was never intended, or cling to the one that had shattered fully.
Forgetting ourselves for the moment, this is where the question of why becomes critical for our children. No one is discounting how excruciating it is to lose a loved one before their time. No one questions how painful a divorce can be or how frustrating it is to lose a job. The situations seem completely unfair. They always will be from a worldly point of view. However, when we cannot get beyond why, it seems to immobilize us.
In the absence of clear answers, we sometimes forget we can do things every day to move forward. For starters, we can put effort into having good relationships with each other. We can provide regular, consistent routine at home. We can provide our children with ongoing opportunities for exercise, good dietary options, and appropriate sleep habits while minimizing those influences that we know are not good for them. We can communicate with them regularly even if they do not respond in the way we desire. We can take care of our own health and well-being, knowing that we cannot give to our children what we do not have. We can learn from others who have found ways to transcend pain. These people can become our best friends. We can learn to love the new goals that life may unexpectedly bring. We can work to find meaning within our struggle. And at the times we are only left with suffering, we can offer it to something beyond ourselves. These are things that all of us can benefit from, including our children. Someday, maybe sooner than expected, they may also be faced with the question of why.
If this sounds like common sense, it is. But often when things are really despairing, it is too easy to forget that not knowing why does not mean we cannot have hope. It may just mean that our hopefulness that day comes from walking to the front door instead of staying in bed.
I spend much of my days working with kids on the autism spectrum. They can be some of the most extraordinary and frustrating children alike. I have come to notice something interesting that is certainly not exclusive to this population. The progress and adjustment of these children seems to have as much, or even more, to do with the parents’ abilities to provide for the family’s basic needs as it does with specific interventions and treatments. Both are certainly important. But one without the other creates a tenuous situation. In the end, it seems that parents who learn to balance both are the ones whose children have the best outcomes.
In 1997, at the age of 92, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl passed away forty-five years after he was liberated from the concentration camps. His parents, brother, and wife never made it out. By the time he had died, his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning had sold over ten million copies and been translated into twenty-four languages. He received an average of over twenty letters a day during his final years mostly thanking him for changing the lives of those who had read his book. His family members would continue to receive letters after he had passed. Logotherapy, developed by Frankl as a means of treating a number of psychological conditions, became known the world over. It is based on the idea that life has meaning, even in the worst situations. We are always free to seek out this meaning. Frankl believed there are three basic ways to find this meaning: service to others, personal encounter or true experiencing, and our attitude towards unavoidable suffering. He was quoted as saying, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Along the way, it seems that his life became little about why and much about finding meaning in what came next.
Each of us, in small or great ways, will be forced to deal with difficult situations that do not make sense. Many of us will find that this takes us through the intersection of will and faith. Regardless of where why gets us, it seems that we must never forget that each day provides a renewed opportunity to ask what is next. It is not that we shouldn’t forever be open to new insights that bring clarity to our why questions. But it’s just that, in whatever way possible, we must work to accept what is, and push forward with whatever is to be. Otherwise, we may be missing the opportunities that lie all around us to see a new light in an otherwise dark place.