Sunday, March 27, 2011

Need to know

I've been thinking a lot lately about the seeming need of human beings to understand things.  If something is wrong psychologically or emotionally people always want to know why.  They are reluctant to take a given action unless they understand the reasons for it.  They are frequently unwilling to make a decision unless and until they can determine why one option is more favorable than another. 

Sometimes human curiosity is a good thing.  Throughout history it has led to the development of amazing technology, driven the discovery of treatments and cures for all sorts of physical and mental ills, and has helped to expand the ways in which we interact with our environments and with each other.  There is no question that the human drive to understand has been a useful quality that has likely given us an edge over other species and propelled us to the top of the food chain.

What stands out to me is not the quest for understanding that leads to something useful and adaptive.  Rather, what strikes me as odd is that we apply our desire for discovery to endeavors that are completely useless.  We look for reasons in situations where finding them would have no practical implications.  If there is no chance that knowing why a particular problem exists in its current form will help us to better deal with or solve the problem in question then honestly, what is the point?!?

And yet this need to know has such an impact on our behavior.  For example, time and time again people come to me wanting to know why they are depressed, anxious, emotionally unstable, etc.  I can understand the desire to know -- it is, after all, human nature.  So I am willing to spend a little bit of time on identifying possible contributing factors.  Most people are satisfied with the explanation that there are a number of factors that might have played a role in creating their current situation.  They are typically content to identify a few of the most likely culprits before moving on.  But there are some people for whom this is not enough.  They return again and again to the question, "Why am I like this?"  They spend excessive amounts of time and energy thinking about and analyzing their past experiences.  The reality is that there is no specific, identifiable reason.  Even if such a reason existed, what good would come from discovering it?  It would tell us nothing about how to resolve the problems the person is facing.  Knowing how you got there will not show you how to get out.

That's just one example of how frustrating the human quest for reasons can be.  I could come up with a million others, but I'll refrain.  The point is, there comes a time when the need to know why becomes part of the problem.  Frequently people want to know why a particular thing is before they are willing to accept it.  Non-acceptance inevitably leads to suffering.  When you refuse to accept what is you begin to fight against it.  You get caught up in wanting things to be different than they are.  Not only does this create a lot of negative emotions it also prevents you from figuring out how best to cope with reality.  If you can't accept it then how can you cope with it?

The solution?  I suppose it is being willing to let go.  Accept that things are as they are and that it really doesn't matter why.  You will have to do this again and again; the urge to ask why will continue to come back up.  Whenever it does, you will again have to remind yourself that chasing that urge is a fruitless endeavor.  You will have to make a conscious choice to simply allow things to be as they are.


  1. I read this earlier and had to come back to it after thinking about it for a while.

    I think needing to know is partly a control thing. Everyone wants to make sense of whatever it is they're going thru and its easier to do it thru logic and information then it is thru emotion. I found it to be a form protection from emotion- at least for me.

  2. You are right to highlight the futility of grasping and clinging to our own and others expectations for us. But poking around usually does not do any harm either, it can sometimes help us to feel better about how we are feeling. If you don't know that you are a paranoid schizophrenia then you might start to wonder if there is something wrong with you :))

  3. "Knowing how you got there will not show you how to get out" - this is so insightful! I too am often looking for the Reason for things being the way they are... but what if the reason is irrelevant and is in fact holding us back from moving forward?! You are writing such interesting and thoughtful posts!!


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