A client whom I hadn't seen in a while called me early last week and asked if he could come in to talk with me "as soon as possible", but didn't tell me the reason. I had an openng the next day, and when we began to talk I learned that his girlfriend of almost a year had broken up with him. He laid out the sequence of the principal events leading up to the breakup, and then asked: "Why did she break up with me? Just two months ago we were talking about moving in together". As he explained things in greater detail, he kept coming back to the question "Why?".
What makes it so important for us to know the reason things happen? Part of it can be explained by human biology: every time we acquire new information of any significance the brain emits a tiny dose of dopamine, the same chemical that plays an important role in addiction. So one could say we are addicted to acquiring new knowledge. Another, and more important, reason we pursue the answer to "why?" is that understanding can lead to control (real or imagined) over circumstances, and over emotions. We learn early on that why something bad happens can lead us to alter our behavior so that next time we can avoid the negative outcome. If I'm seen taking a cookie from the cookie jar when I've been told not to, I'll get scolded. But if I'm not seen I can blame it on my little brother.
The search for a simple answer to "why" becomes more and more fruitless, though, as the situations we're trying to understand become more complex. Take, for example, a particularly complex issue like climate change. Why is it happening (assuming, like most scientists and laymen, that it is)? Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, right? Well, how about the destruction of tens of millions of trees that convert CO2 into oxygen? How about the shrinking of the polar ice cap, resulting in less solar energy being reflected back into space and more being absorbed by the ocean? What about significantly increased methane emissions from growing herds of livestock as meat replaces grains in third world diets? How about the paving of burgeoning roadways and parking lots with black (highly energy absorbent) asphalt? Etc., etc., etc.
Understanding human behavior is a really complicated challenge - not a lot less complicated than diagnosing the causes of climate change. I'm not suggesting that we should stop inquiring as to causes of unpleasant things that happen to us in our relationships or our careers. What I do wish to point out, however, is that complex situations have multiple causative factors, and that it therefore may make sense to place more emphasis on how to move ahead from an unpleasant situation rather than focusing so much on investigating the past. To illustrate with a heavy-handed but vivid example I often use in sessions, if you start driving from Washington to Los Angeles but discover three hours into the trip that you're in New Jersey it would behoove you to plot a new path rather than try to learn where you made the wrong turn.
I so often hear from clients that the reason they want to know "why" they've failed to achieve their relationship or career goals is so that they'll avoid making the same mistake again. The problem with this rationale is that you will probably never encounter a situation so similar that you can apply all the lessons learned, even if you were able to definitively answer why something happened. Why did you get fired? Maybe the boss disliked you because she was jealous, maybe you didn't pay enough attention to detail, maybe you didn't contribute enough in department meetings. The next job you get might value the very things that got you in trouble before: maybe your new boss will value your knowing things that she doesn't, that you are a "big picture" kind of a person, and that you're thoughtful rather than loquacious. The breakup that my client experienced is causing him great pain, and of course he'll want to avoid a repetition of that pain. But he can't ever precisely know the nature of the accumulating issues that led to the breakup, and so he'll never be able to control the course of his next relationship by trying to apply the lessons he concluded he needed to learn from this one.
One other problem with the intensive search for "why?": we can quite easily draw incorrect conclusions. My client thinks his ex is primarily reacting to his jealousy and desire to control her, but as I heard his story I drew a different conclusion: she was tired of his promising to do things and his failing to follow through. But maybe neither of those explanations is correct. And, if you've ever broken up with somebody you know that a multiplicity of factors is involved - it would often be virtually impossible to accurately explain why.
Let me repeat that I'm not suggesting that exploring the causes of things is useless or counterproductive. What I am suggesting is that:
1) In complex situations accurate answers are exceptionally hard to come by, and you'll never encounter that precise situation again.
2) As a result the search for understanding that leads to control is less likely to occur than you'd like to think.
3) Therefore, place more emphasis on what you need to do to move yourself forward rather than looking back.