Why the 'Whys' Don't Matter

By: Laura Hull, LMFT


Newtown.  Aurora.  Columbine.  Benghazi. New York City.  The mere mention of these places and the events associated with them provoke a visceral response in many.  Columbine was almost a generation ago, yet it is a memory that awakens when senseless school violence becomes national news.  Ten years of time was erased and fresh pain surfaced for many when the decade anniversary of 9/11 was commemorated a few years ago.  There are some events that are just so horrific; it is nearly impossible to comprehend on so many levels.  Newtown was supposed to be safe.  Six-year-old children are not supposed to die. 


From the shock and horror that emerged following the murder of twenty first grade students and six adult school employees, came the questions in the minds of so many, “How did this happen?”  And more to the point “Why did this happen”?  The police and investigators have now shifted into the mode of trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.  Dutiful news reporters calling in live feeds from the town remind us that the search for why this happened is ongoing; with the promise “We will keep you updated as details emerge…” As any good investigator will verify, and for that matter, any reporter worth his salt will attest, when trying to get a complete picture of the story, certain questions must be answered.  Investigators will try to answer the “how, who, what, when, where, and why.” I submit it is important to answer all the above questions except for one:  the why.


When tragedy visits, it is a very natural human response to want to know “why.”  Why did the young man take a gun into the school, look into the eyes of children, and fire multiple times?  Why did the teen shooters in Columbine have a death wish and the determination to take fellow classmates with them?  Why did a group of extremists carry out jihad in the skies over New York City? Why? Why, God, why?


As a counselor, I am often asked things such as, “Why is this happening to me?”  “Why did my spouse cheat on me?”  “Why am I depressed all the time?”  “Why can’t I do anything right?”  There’s a very human desire to try to understand why bad things sometimes happen to good people.  We are raised to believe that if we “live right” then bad things will not touch our lives.  Even though we know on a conscious level that life is not fair, we struggle to understand WHY it’s not fair.  It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to solve the riddle of the whys. 


I have never been to Newtown.  I do not know anyone personally touched by this tragedy. Most of us don’t. Yet I have had a sick feeling in my stomach since the story broke.  I have six children of my own, and this story scared me.  It hit me hard; far more as a mother than it did as a therapist.  I thought of those poor children and the fear they must have felt.  I thought of those poor parents and other family members whose lives were shattered.  I believe it is an incident that we will always remember “what we were doing when”….As a rational therapist, I know the odds of this happening at my children’s schools are slim in the grand scheme of things.  Yet, I hesitated in sending my children to school today.   In the battle of my professional side vs. my mother (human instinct) side, Mama won.


In my practice, I often caution clients against getting caught up trying to figure out why things have happened the way they have.  It expends a lot of time and energy that can be put to better use. It often does not solve the problem.  In Newtown, police are interviewing witnesses and investigators are attempting to restore the destroyed computer of the young man that perpetrated this horrific crime.  But in truth, regardless of what is uncovered, it does nothing to change the reality of the situation.  Maybe this young man had a personality disorder or an autism spectrum disorder.  Maybe he didn’t.  It doesn’t change anything.  Some would argue that understanding why this happened could potentially prevent similar events in the future.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The investigation into the lives of the teens behind Columbine yielded some insights into the motives of the criminals.  It did not prevent the shooting at Newtown.  Understanding the motives and intent of the criminal masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks did not prevent Benghazi.


Whatever is uncovered in the investigation in Newtown, it will still not answer the question of why.  On some level, I believe the real questions our hearts are asking include “Why did You allow this to happen, God?”  “Did Your eyes turn away when Adam Lanza entered that school?” “Did You not hear the cries of those 20 Children?” As a person of faith, I know that God is in control.  I know this at the core of my being.  Psalms 46:10 should always be a source of comfort.  I know better than to ask God why.  We know some things are beyond human understanding.  There will be many dark days ahead as our country struggles with the reality of what has happened.  I cannot imagine what the parents waiting at that fire station experienced when it was announced that there were no more survivors in the school.  I have worked with grieving individuals throughout my career, and yet my mind could not even go there.


In the days ahead, there will be both good and bad things that will emerge from this tragedy.  The good may involve the community pulling together to support one another.  Nationwide, it may bring out the desire to be better or more attentive parents.  It may inspire some to re-examine and re-dedicate to their faith.  Perhaps more focus will be put on mental health issues and what we need to do to provide help to those who struggle with mental illness.  On the other side of the coin, this tragedy runs the risk of becoming a political hot button, with guns and finger-pointing being front and center in a debate.  The horror of December 14, 2012 will change our country permanently. Whether or not we ever have a complete understanding of why it happened, it is important that we understand how this happened.  How this young man obtained the guns is important to preventing future events.  We already know the who, where, and when.  Finding out how Lanza’s plan came together may reveal things that prevent future tragedies from occurring.  But trying to understand “why” has the potential of yielding nothing more than “if….then” scenarios, such as “if we find out that Lanza was mentally ill, then we can understand why this happened.”  “If we ban guns, then this will never happen again.”  Any beginning philosophy student will admit this is faulty thinking; merely a slippery slope.  It does not provide comfort or real meaning.  It’s grasping at something, anything really, that attempts to make sense of the senseless.


When clients ask me to help them understand “why” something happened, I often ask them how it helps to know “why”.  It’s usually a surprising question to them, one they struggle to answer.  The best answer I’ve ever received in response was “if I can understand it, then I can have closure”.  I can understand why people feel that way at times.  But understanding something does not change the reality of what has happened, and more importantly what must be worked through.  As our country works its way through the stages of grief - which it will - regardless of whether or not we ever find an answer for “why” a young man committed this heinous act, healing will begin.  It’s a process, but it will happen.  Our task is to do what we can to help the process.  Perhaps there’s never been a better time to apply the serenity prayer:


God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

If I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.



--Reinhold Niebuhr



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