Why do we need answers, by which I mean the correct answers?
Let me quote the close-to-exact words from Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975):
“They took out all my top teeth. Then they found out it was kidney stones.”
That’s why we need answers. If you don’t have them, you could unnecessarily lose all your top teeth.
That’s the “utilitarian” response to the question. There is a paralleling interpretation coming up. Probably. I’m telling you, I am flying by the seat of my pants here!
From a practical standpoint, answers indicate directions to ameliorating solutions.
Wrong answers – to misquote “Amazing Grace”:
“You once were lost, and that was it.”
Going seriously awry, following mistaken directions. Explorers, looking for India and discovering Massachusetts. (Those people were not “lost” exactly, but they were sure red-faced when they were asked, “What happened to the spices?”)
Consider the following alternatives:
Did you fall and break your hip? Or did your hip break and you fell?
(I am referencing this example in case a misfortune of that nature occurs to me down the line and I am no longer writing this blog. I not only do not waste things from the past. I do not waste things from the future as well.)
You might say concerning this example, “What difference does it make? Either way, you’ve got a broken hip.”
True. But the rival perceptions engenders disparate consequences.
The consequence of “I fell and I broke you hip”?
You immediately look for somebody to sue.
“The Department Store’s floor was too slippery?”
“There was an icy sidewalk in front of their house.”
“I slipped on some dog poop and they’ll be hearing from my lawyer! And I am not talking about the dog!”
The consequences of “I broke my hip and I fell”?
I mean, who are you going to sue, the hip maker?
An unfortunate happenstance, is what it is. Your aging hip exceeded its “Expiration Date” and down you went. Maybe if you’d taken calcium supplements, who knows? You could sue your doctor for not instructing you to, I suppose. But your attorney would most likely say, “Go home and enjoy your new hip.”
There you have it. The same situation. But, based on your choice of perspective, two diametrically different responses. One, involving vituperative legal wrangling, the other, “I guess it just happened.”
On the other hand, there is another way of evaluating the story.
And that is…
As a story.
Let me tell you what I mean.
You know what’s an awful story – and by “awful” I mean unsatisfying? This one happened to me.
“How did you get ‘Legionnaires’ Disease’”?
“I have no idea.”
Two sentences. No excitement. I have literally seen yawns. And I understand why. It’s a terrible story. (Not to mention it offers no direction for avoiding “Legionnaires’ Disease” in the future.)
You can sense when a story – in the following case a visually delineated story – lacks an obligatory payoff.
In First Grade at the Toronto Hebrew Day School, we were asked to draw a picture involving a sporting activity. I was incapable of drawing people. So when Miss Sternberg, our art teacher, looked at my picture, what she saw on my drawing paper was this:
A badminton net slung between two poles, and two rackets and the “birdie” lying on the ground. “Where are the people?” inquired Miss Sternberg. “It’s raining,” I replied. “They went inside.”
Good answer. Terrible drawing.
Although we definitely need answers as directions for amelioration, we also need answers for a sense of completion, or as they say in support of capital punishment, “closure.”
It seems natural to want that. Without completion – an outcome, a conclusion, an explanation – it’s like that joke I once heard involving the traditional song during the “Seventh Inning Stretch”.
Try singing this:
Take me out to the ballgame take me
Out with the crowd buy me
Some peanuts and Cra-acker Jacks I don’t
Care if I ever get back for it's
Root root root for the home team if they
Don’t win it’s a shame for it’s
One two three
At the old ball game.
It feels weird, doesn’t it? The song’s finished, but it isn’t.
There is this visceral requirement, I am arguing. Events in our lives need to have satisfying resolutions. Even if they’re wrong. Or transparently fabricated.
I return to Neil Simon for another pretty-close-to-a-direct-quote, this time from the TV incarnation of The Sunshine Boys (1972), which could possibly have been a pilot.
Willy Clark is railing at the hotel desk clerk about some egregious grievance – the elevator door closed on his foot, or something, promising indisputable evidence of that occurrence:
“I have witnesses!” he angrily proclaims. “They’re not here yet, but I have them.”
Funny but preposterous? Perhaps.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
It’s the same thing, isn’t it? “There’s an answer. It’s just not here yet.”
And people believe that.
That’s how much we need answers.
Tomorrow – having found my “tomorrow” – we shall examine how it feels living are without answers.