I miss my father. I wasn’t always nice to him when he was still alive. I didn’t even regard him as much of a role model and used to make fun of his quirkiness and his singular perspectives on things. But hindsight as they say, is twenty-twenty vision, and looking back on what he was like as a father and an individual, I have to admit that he was quite unique. That is, in the sense that he possessed qualities that I rarely see in a lot of people.
For a start, my father was not a man to be easily influenced or swayed by popular opinions or what other people think. He was not, as it were, reactive. Rather, he had a particular way in reacting to things, which on some things I used to think as weird, but come to think of it, was probably more to do with the fact that he did not really think highly of man’s basic human nature or lower chakra instincts.
For example, he was not a man who was quickly moved by emotions. He regarded them as a refuge for all human foibles and laziness; mere excuses to mask the inability or unwillingness to use one’s intelligence and seek out the truth. Often this made him (seemingly) incapable of understanding the finer manifestations of human emotions such as romantic and artistic expressions.
He could not, for instance, see much point in operas. Why did those people have to sing out their words when speaking would have been a lot more convenient and easier to understand? Or he would express incomprehension at advertising that show men giving strange women flowers on impulse because the woman smells nice when she walks by him.
I suspect most of the time he would air these views merely to tease and just be deliberately irritating. To be the gadfly in the Socratic sense of saying things so that people would be roused out of their normal way of thinking. So that we would question the things that we take for granted and accept as truism without fully understanding why.
Because the question ‘why’ is the basis of his way of thinking. It is a powerful little word, which, in a society comfortable with widely held beliefs, second-hand ideas and hand-me-down knowledge, is rarely employed. Most of the time, if anything, it is consciously avoided to the point of being taboo. Particularly when dealing with questions of religions.
My father, on the contrary, was fond of resorting to this little word ‘why’ as a tool to attain the truth in human behaviour, however, insignificant the subject. I particularly remembered him berating his nephew, then a recalcitrant teenager prone to fistfights. The boy would come home with bruises on his body and a black eye. He had been fighting as usual.
My father would corner him and for the next half-an hour or so (it seemed a long time because I could hear him from the other end of the house) instead of lecturing him on his aggressive behaviour, simply bombarded him over and over, with one question. Why? And he wouldn’t desist until the poor boy could come up with a convincing and satisfactory answer to the question why he was involved in fisticuffs to begin with.
I think the point of the exercise was to bring home to his nephew the absurdity of his violent behaviour by forcing the boy to seek out and spell out himself the reason why he always ended up in fights. If nothing else, the boy would think twice before next time getting into fights so that he wouldn’t have to put up with being collared with the dreaded word ‘why’.
So this was my father’s basic method in dealing with life’s multifarious problems: Ask the question ‘why’ often and loudly enough, you will at some point penetrate through the layers of excuses, denials, reasons, beliefs, lies and arrive at the truth, even if the truth is a simply an acknowledgement that you don’t know why. But the question has been asked.
‘Why be angry?’ ‘Why be afraid? ‘Why did you do that?’
Sometimes his search for reasons made him appear unfeeling, or at least unsympathetic. For instance, when you’re not well and laid up in bed, the last thing you need is a parent asking you the question, ‘why are you sick?’ Which of course, when you’re probed long enough, would eventually point to the fact that because it was your fault. Why? Because you didn’t take better care of yourself. Message. Know how to take better care of yourself because sickness is the physical manifestation of your ignorance.
I miss him and his ‘whys’ because this is one word which we rarely use and which I think is the reason why it’s so difficult for us to attain the truth in anything going on around us. Asking ‘why’ prevents one from merely reacting, but begins the process of analysing and the search for motives, including why we react in certain way to certain things. To question is to suspend one’s emotions, use our intellectual faculty and view things in perspectives.
Emotions might be more appealing because they come to us effortlessly. However, they are poor guides when it comes to determining our action. They are dangerous when we let them rule our beliefs. More importantly, employing our emotions rarely lead us to the truth but almost always to conflicts.
Asking why, on the other hand, not only requires thinking, but forces us to question our basic beliefs and personal convictions that might not be comfortable or desirable to a lot of people who find comfort in them and who define their identity and raison d’etre by them. It is not an easy thing to do.
But the question must be asked. Because after all, what is the purpose of our lives if not to seek the truth.
(Desi Anwar. First published in The Jakarta Globe)