When answering his daughter’s questions, Ty Phillips strikes the balance between dispensing wisdom and encouraging curiosity.
Her pleas of confusion and curiosity ring out in the silent woods around us. I explain that when butterflies or bees or other flying insects get their wings wet, they sit in the sun in order to dry them. “But why?”
Her thirst for understanding is insatiable and we have started down a new path of development together—hers and mine.
Every time I turn around, she tosses a faint but sincere, “Why” at me. Why does the refrigerator make that noise? Why are there ice cubes in the freezer? Why do I sweat and breathe heavy when I exercise? Why am I taking a shower? Why am I changing my shirt? There is no end to her questions and just when I think there may be a window of silence for a few moments; “Why, daddy, why?”
I’ll admit, it times it can be frustrating. I will explain every last detail down to the minutiae and still, she greets me with, “Why?” I shrug my shoulders and make exaggerated faces of frustration, yet I know this time in her development is crucial. These questions and how they are answered could lay the foundation of a life of feeling stifled or a life of open curiosity and scientific literacy, and yet, sometimes I just want silence.
I reflect during these moments of equipoise on how we often stifle each other. Our questioning is a lot like hers, an attempt to make sense of the world around us. How often have I rolled my eyes at someone who asked me (what I felt were) too many questions? How often have I been ignored because my last question was one question too many for someone else?
As a species that mirrors our social peers and parents, I think about how important it is that I allow her questions to bloom and unfold; not always answering but sometimes showing and allowing her to take the steps needed to find her own solutions. Still by her side, still encouraging, but showing her how she can make discoveries for herself. Trying to find that balance of showing her how to think and not just what to think.
These lessons remind me of how the Buddha taught. He placed the foundation stones for the rest of us and said, stand on them, look at them, pick them up and study for yourselves and of they ring true, place them where you found them so the next person may stand on them, or if they ring false, throw them by the wayside.
This concept stops me in my tracks at times. How often are we willing to allow open inquiry into our most cherished beliefs? How often do we expose the white underbelly of who we are for open scrutiny for our children and family and say, “What do you think?” I think that often, we want the world to settle into agreement with us without allowing them to test the path we have walked. We assume that it seems to have worked for me, so it will work for you and you and you as well. When questioned, our insecurity and egotistic reactions show that maybe, just maybe, we haven’t come as far as we thought we had.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha engaged other teachers for two reasons. One being he wanted to expose false teachings for what they were—a path of delusion and misleading that led to nowhere (something we seem to excuse today as ‘culture’ or ‘harmless beliefs’) and two, to show that he was open to dialogue and exposure on all levels. How could he claim enlightenment if he could not engage in criticism of his teaching with other teachers of his time. I think about this when my reaction slides too close to, “Because I said so” or, “because it just is.”
I also think about being comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Something it seems many of us are afraid of. What benefit does this have for us or others though? Pretense and ego clouding the waters of knowledge. “Why daddy, why?” I sit down, open a dictionary and say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”