Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, July 23, 2010

The courage to ask "why"

This is Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. May we keep seeking to know so that, like the sun, our light can keep shining.

He who knows nothing, doubts nothing. (Brazil)

Dear Zayda,

As soon as you have enough words, you will begin to ask “why”. I hope nothing stops you from continuing to ask “why”. I can think of no way to increase what we know, other than asking questions about what others tell us.

Still, my grandniece, you will find that “why” questions will get you into trouble at school and later on the job. I hope your parents encourage your questions so you never get in trouble at home for wanting to know more.

When I was growing up, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. For sure, they were not to ask questions of adults. Today, too many adults still try to be seen and not heard, unless they are accepting all they hear, and doubting nothing.

“Why” questions can be scary for adults. They may have to think thoughts that they hide from themselves, or they may have to re-think what they believe to be true.

You may find that some questions are taboo – questions about sex and religion. And questions about politics. When I was a child and my dad was active in politics, it was a lot easier for me to dislike the side he thought was wrong. So I grew up believing that side had no sense and would beat up people who didn’t support them. I also believed that side was made up of rich people who cared only about getting richer, and poor people who didn’t mind if the rich people made them poorer.

My dad was about seventy years old when he was first able to face himself with “why:” questions. He knew enough about his political party to start doubting them. Then he asked even more “why” questions and decided that his party was no longer good for Jamaica. It took him longer to decide to vote for the party he disliked all his life.

Sex brought us all here, Zayda, but this is one area where you might find the most blocks to “why” questions. I tried to answer my sons’ questions about sex, but sometimes I would feel confused about what to say, and want to distract my sons. Sometimes adults get cross as a way of avoiding answers that they may not have or may not know how to give. So I talked with my sons about babies. It was easy to talk about babies being in their mummies’ tummies. But it was not so easy to answer how and why the babies came about.

Religion can be another area where questions are not allowed. “Why” questions about God means doubts, and for many church people doubts about God are not allowed. Be warned, one of the questions not to ask is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” I am sure you will think of your own why questions, and I am sure your mummy and daddy will answer them for you. But they may also warn you not to ask those questions around some family members.

Hopefully, you will feel so free to ask your “why” questions that you will ask them anyway, and let the adults take care of their own fears and doubts. I am sure, also, that your questions will help adults to know more. And perhaps to doubt more.


Your shangazi

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at