The Question with No Right Answer

Asking why a person is bad rarely yields a useful answer. Assuming that they are good and want to do the human thing can help us craft a more useful response.

As a child I remember learning the classic no-right-answer question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” We found it a clever and amusing trick. Someone had figured out a way to ask a seemingly innocent question that gave no option of an innocent answer.

The cleverness stuck in my mind. I’m realizing now what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that question. “Why don’t you want to act lovingly toward me?” Why aren’t you looking forward to seeing me?” Whether those questions are actually being asked by my husband and my friends, I’m certainly hearing them inside my head, and feeling trapped by the question that labels me guilty regardless of the answer.

I wonder how much we do this to our children. We are mystified by their behavior, their seeming lack of desire to act like decent caring human beings. “Why don’t you want to cooperate?” “Why do you enjoy being bad?” And the more we ask those questions, the more stubborn they seem to be in clinging to behaviors and attitudes that seem totally inexplicable.

There is something about being asked a question that assumes guilt that leaves a person with little in the way of flexible response. The possibility that I actually do want to cooperate, do want to express love, do want to show my natural goodness, has been eliminated. My basic lack of common decency in this area is a given; the questioner just wants to know why.

What can I say? There is no defense. At the moment I’m asked, I’m likely to be feeling bad. I don’t feel loving, I don’t feel cooperative, I don’t feel like being good. So the questioner’s assumptions ring true. Maybe I really am a bad person--but I have no idea why. And if I’m being called a bad person, and can’t say anything to disprove it, it’s easier to act that way than to fight it. The question has helped lock me into the behavior that it was trying to challenge.

What if we took a totally different tack? What if we assumed that our children--or anybody else in our lives for that matter--are completely good, regardless of what they do. The question of a non-cooperative child shifts from “Why are you bad?” to “What is making you, a basically cooperative human being, act this way?” The question of one who is withholding affection becomes, “What’s happened that is obscuring your loving nature?” The question of a child whose behavior is outrageous become “Why are you, who are so good, doing these things?”

The answers may not come fluently and smoothly. They may not be easy to hear. But at least they are there. “I’m mad.” “I haven’t been heard and am looking for a way to show.” “I’m hurting.” The ground may be rocky, but at least it is solid. Their basic goodness is not in question. An answer is possible.