Why Needing To Understand Might Not Help
Sometimes, understanding why something has happened, or is happening, can help us to accept what’s so and move on.
Being able to make sense of something can go a long way in terms of helping us to move through our feelings and move on.
Things not going the way we hoped or expected, or go, you know — completely ass-over-teakettle — is so common that nearly every company has an entire department to deal with it. Customer service departments abound, though, as you know, with varying degrees of effective problem solving and concern regarding your satisfaction in mind.
In fact, the science of queueing theory (the study of waiting) is studied extensively in psychology and in math (I feel like therein lies a lot of the issue, but then, I don’t like math, so…).
I studied queueing theory in my MBA and found it fascinating. By the way, literally all companies know this stuff, on account of studies like the one below, and also because companies are filled with people who also have to stand in lines and wait for things. It makes you wonder why certain companies don’t at least try to do better, but that’s a question for another day.
David Maister, who studies the psychology of waiting in lines, has discovered the following, though, to be honest, I’m pretty sure you know these, too, from personal experience:
Waits feel shorter if you have something to do, and interminable when you don’t. AKA don’t let me be bored. This is why there are screens and posters at the bank, though really, these days, this is why we have Instagram.
Any progress feels like progress. Even if I don’t actually get a table yet, fake me out by handing me a menu and distracting me with the hope of feeling like I’m making progress.
Anxiety makes waiting feel longer/worse. Waiting for a coffee is less onerous than waiting to be admitted to the emergency room, or for scary test results. Fear amplifies our senses, so waiting while anxious not only feels like time slows down, but it’s filled with more unpleasant emotions, thoughts and sensations.
If you don’t know how long you’ll be waiting, it feels longer. This is why passport offices and IKEA have screens to tell you which number is being served, and why the hostess gives you an estimate until a table will be ready.
Waiting takes longer when you don’t know why you’re waiting. If you know someone’s had a medical emergency, you’re more likely to be willing to wait. Interestingly, the explanation doesn’t need to be a good one: any explanation is better than none at all.
If the line feels unfair, it’ll feel longer. Obviously, people cutting the line make you wait longer. WHO THE HELL DO THEY THINK THEY ARE?
The more we want something, or the more value we perceive, the longer we’re willing to wait. We know quality takes time, and we’ll be more patient when we think we’re getting something good. I’d wait longer for a free car than a free coffee, and I’d wait longer for a free Tesla than a free second-hand sedan.
Waiting alone is worse than waiting together. This is clearly because you can’t play Heads Up alone.
Why does this seemingly innocuous corner of our shared human experience garner such attention? Well, I’m guessing because knowing this helps make sense of the experience of waiting, right? We all feel the same way about waiting for what we want, which is largely frustrated, annoyed and powerless.
It’s that last part I want to talk about today. It’s the unspoken part of all of the main points in queueing theory.
As noted above, we tend to struggle to accept things not going our way when we don’t know why it’s happening. I mean, I, for one, struggle to accept things not going my way, period, but it’s definitely worse when it feels inexplicable. “Hello, God? Are you mad at me? “
“WHY IS LIFE UNFAIR?”, I shout, shaking my fist at the sky, where I imagine God/The Universe resides. It’s an open-concept residence. So much square footage and the light is incredible.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve got: Life, and The World, and God/The Universe are under no obligation to explain themselves to us.
My insistence that Things Make Sense only makes me miserable. And that’s because I’m hell-bent on a negotiation with Life/God/The Universe that isn’t even on the table.
My need to understand why things are happening in order to accept them is a feeble attempt by my survival mechanism (aka my humanity and my fear) to control things that are outside of my control. My efforts to gain control leaves me feeling like a victim.
My comprehension of events and therefore my condoning of them changes mostly nothing at all. It might change my experience of what’s happening, or what’s not happening, as the case may be, but that’s really about it.
And it’s fine that I try to understand everything. Just like it’s fine that you do, too. We’re human, and we have these huge noggins capable of a lot of thinking, some of which is actually useful.
But in reality, when I NEED to understand something, it’s because I’m unwilling to be with Life The Way It Is, which is to say wild, free, non-partisan and unpredictable, so I’m trying to take back any ounce of feeling any control and sovereignty over my life and my experience of the world.
That’s okay. This big old world can be A LOT to be with sometimes, or lately, all the time. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Honestly, it’d be weirder if you didn’t feel overwhelmed and powerless sometimes (especially these and other unprecedented times).
I’ll be honest, my needing to know why something is happening is really about my need to know where the blame should be attributed. It’s a subtle and fairly useless way to try to change the past and control the future. It’s a futile exercise, but at least it keeps me occupied. I’m busy sleuthing out the why, WHY DID THIS HAPPEN/NOT HAPPEN, which helps me avoid feeling my feelings and moving through them.
Ironically, all this fascination with why things happen, “I just need to understand WHY…” is coming at the expense of something we don’t really want to lose. It’s costing us our presence. Our ability to be here, right now, in this moment. You know, the one and only time we can actually do anything about. The one time over which we have any control at all.
Oof. That’s awkward, isn’t it?
Look, everything happens for a reason, but the honest truth is that you may never know that reason. And even if you did, you might not like it. Understanding why something happened may not necessarily make it okay, though for sure it might sometimes make it a little easier to swallow.
The most important part here isn’t that you understand why something happened, but that you accept what’s happened, and then allow any thoughts and feelings you might have about it, and process it so you can move on to the next thing that happens, because new things are happening or not all the time.
Hiding out behind a need for control disguised as curiosity doesn’t shelter you from Life happening as it does. It just leaves you continually resisting the past (good luck there) and fearing the future (that’s a long haul), at the cost of your desired experience of life RIGHT NOW.
You don’t need to understand why something happened in order to accept it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re okay with it or not. It just is. If you’d like it to go differently, then start using your now moments to create that change, instead of wasting it looking in your rearview mirror, trying to figure out why and wishing it had gone differently.
And just a reminder: just as the world is under no obligation to make sense to you, you are under no obligation to feel okay about anything that’s happened or is happening in the world. It’s okay not to feel okay. You will be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
As I’ve mentioned many times, life is short. What if you didn’t waste your time needing to intellectually understand something that all you need to do is feel instead?
What if you stopped trying to change the past and control the future, so you could be here, where you are, right now?