When I was an English teacher, the first unit I taught my grade 9 students was short stories. We’d read several of them and my students would write in their own words what I’ve always called ‘the elements of fiction’ – character descriptions, plot including conflict and climax, setting including where and when the story took place and the theme.
These really are ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’. ‘How’ didn’t figure greatly in our discussion of each short story. And these questions are not restricted only to discussions in any class in school. I know we all ask ourselves these same questions when something –whether we deem it good or bad – happens in our lives.
The first four ‘W’s’ are all content based. Who was involved or who did what to whom? What happened? Where and when did it happen? All content oriented. The questions don’t lift us out of the content and we often end up focusing on that alone and get caught up in the minutia of our memories.
‘How’ is a question which focuses on strategies. How did that happen? How did you or I do that? ‘How’ is a question which keeps us replicating learned behaviours and ways of operating. We keep on doing the same old same old because that is what we’ve learned and what we know. If someone does ‘X’ to me, then I respond ‘Y’. If ‘X’ happens, then I react with ‘Y’. I do not make any choice other than what I’ve learned. And eventually I come to react without conscious thought. I respond through habit.
‘Why’ is the question which keeps us bumping up against our beliefs, values, and attitudes. Why did this happen to me which, for me became why does this type of thing always happen to me? When we focus on looking for answers to ‘why’, we look for reasons to justify what happens and to provide us with a rationalization for it all. ‘Why’ moves lock-step in our lives with ‘because’ – because other people are mean or selfish or inconsiderate or just plain stupid, because we don’t deserve more or different, because we are lacking in some way – because, because, because, because.
I might come across as terribly Dr. Phil here and the content is the content. So what? We regurgitate it with our own spin on it all to provide context for ‘how’ and ‘why’. ‘How’ is how we’ve done things – what we’ve learned to do – which, for most of us, presupposes that we will always respond that way. And ‘why’ does nothing more than stop us in our tracks. I think of ‘why’ as the question which is focused on if we spend any time in psycho therapy. We get mired in looking for reasons to explain things away and to justify what we believe. [Having spent 4 years in therapy with an Adlerian psychiatrist that was my experience.] And the impact of ‘why’ on our lives is insidious – subtle and dangerous in that it hamstrings us and renders us powerless. We never lift ourselves beyond that.
So, we can live our lives tied to the past as we remember it. We can live our lives believing that our past predicts our future. We can live our lives from unconscious or unquestioning habit. We can be constantly looking for explanations and justifications. We can believe that there must always be a logical and acceptable [to others] reason for every choice we make. We can live out our lives mired in old beliefs, values, and attitudes which, while they might have served us in the past, do not serve us in creating our future.
It all comes down to choice. It’s not enough to say. “I want something for myself.” If I look back and behind and down to my past, I will never have what I want. I’ll get trapped by the 5 ‘W’s’ and the ‘H’ as I’ve known them. And I will end up living my life imprisoned by my past.
When I look forward and up and choose from that vantage point, when I choose to let go of all the old questions, and most especially ‘why’, then I can make those choices which will lead to me creating the world in which I choose to live – the world of my choosing and not of my accepting. I will be free to make my own choices which need only resonate with me.