This question is an invitation to explore possibilities unlike “Why?” -- which can be a polite way to register doubt and oppose new ideas.
Instead of the typical toddler question, “Why?,” a mom told me that her child had the habit of asking, “Why not?”
“Why?” digs into the issue, inquiring about vision and motivation. In American culture, “Why?” often elicits defensiveness. It can be a polite way of registering doubt and implying opposition. Perhaps most toddlers ask this question because they sense that it evens the playing field with adults.
“Why not?” opens up the horizon. It invites exploring possibilities. “Why not?” invites action and gestures towards support.
L. Gregory Jones and Kelly Gilmer argue that “our educational system and broader culture often teach us to be critics rather than performers. And yet performers are better equipped to lead institutions, because they have learned to practice, persevere and adapt.”
“Why not?” feels like a performer question. It is easy to imagine that an experiment could emerge from the question. “Why?” feels more like a critic that stops the action and can paralyze the effort.
For seven years, I taught seminary students and recently installed clergy about the dynamics of congregations. They seminarians and new clergy were separated into different classes.
The seminarians never gave me very high marks as a teacher. They were not very interested in what I was sharing. The new clergy, however, stayed after the sessions and asked more questions. They called after the seminar was over.
I came to understand that the same material functioned very differently for each group. For the seminarians I was describing a foreign land that was a distant journey from the familiar classroom. For the clergy, I had spread out a map on which they could find themselves and their homes and how to navigate the pathways between them.
For every major concept, the seminarians would ask me, “Why?” Like an adult answering a toddler, I struggled to put the concepts into the framework of the student’s experience. I often had to ask the students to suspend their suspicion and let me give them a full picture of what was happening. Honestly, it was a version of “because I said so.”
The “Why not?” version of the question from my colleague’s toddler has the advantage of inviting further action. A more sophisticated version might be to ask: “What can we imagine resulting from this idea?” Or, “Who would benefit first from this idea and how might we test the concept with them?” These sorts of questions focus on next steps. Once the idea has been tried, we can ask, “What worked? What did not work? What should we do differently?”
I wish that my colleague’s toddler could follow me around for a couple of days, continually asking, “Why not?” I think it would help open my imagination and perhaps even see additional signs of God’s work in the world.