The Why Gets Us to the Heart of Things
“Deep conversations with the right people are priceless.” Unknown
I’m learning that every conversation can be meaningful if you ask the right questions. I was hanging out with my mom last Saturday. Normally, we talk on the phone to catch up, but she was nearby so she came into the studio. We sat on the bench, smiling and catching up. We were both having a good time.
Suddenly, she started talking about my childhood and what I was like as a child. She laughed and said “You were such a troublemaker! Do you remember when you were 6 years old and almost burned down a 16-storey building?” She continued laughing and said. “None of it bothered me. I have always loved you and I always wanted a son like you. I wouldn’t have changed you for anything!”
I was grinning and teary-eyed and said “Wow! Thank you, Mom!”
“But…”; my mom continued.
In my head, I was screaming; “please… you don’t have to add anything.”
“I remember when you were 13 or 14 years old you became the worst brat!”
“Worse than trying to burn down a 16-storey building?”
She nodded vigorously; “So much worse!”
“What did I do?”
My mom was getting worked up at this point; “You kept trying to tell me how to live my life! You were a kid and gave me life advice. It was so annoying!”
“Oh, well, okay.” I was unsure where her sudden anger was coming from. “Have I done that recently?”
“No, no. You haven’t done it recently but it is never a nice thing to do!” And she lost her temper and was exploding with frustration and anger in a five-minute rant about why nobody should tell others how to live. And then I knew this was not about the past or me as a child. Something had happened recently.
She let out her frustration. When she paused, I asked; “Mom, can you give me a recent example of someone telling you how to live your life?”
“Actually, yes I can! Six days ago I was with my friends and they said I wasn’t enjoying life and not having fun. That I should go out and do things like rock climbing.”
In my head, I was thinking “Oh crap, do they know who they are talking to? Don’t provoke her!” Out loud, I sympathized and said “Oh my gosh, Mom! What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happened! I put them in their place! Nobody tells me what to do!”
I readily agreed and her anger started to subside. But after a moment, her anger spiked again. She is rehashing the same things and becoming more and more angry and frustrated. Obviously, I was missing something. There had to be more to this story.
“Mom, what still sits heavy on your heart? It has been six days. Why is this still bothering you?”
She looked at me and suddenly her body relaxed. She also aged like 15 years in a matter of moments. “Part of me knows that they are right. I have always been someone who looks for adventure, who tries new things, and who learns new things. Recently, I have slowed down. Especially with the pandemic. I don’t want to rock climb or do any of the things they suggested, but I do want to do things.”
Now I was excited. “Mom, the sky’s the limit. We can do anything. I have lots of contacts through the studio so we can make something happen. What do you want to do?”
She looked at me without missing a beat; “I want to get a gun license.”
I laughed, assuming she was joking. Then I looked at the dead serious expression on her face and I paused, blinked a couple of times and processed this information. “Okay, let’s see what we can do.”
So we spent the next fifteen minutes googling gun ranges. So this Family Day weekend, my mom, my brother and I are going to the gun range. Because it is what my mom wants to do.
So what I learned is you can’t get to the heart of things if you don’t ask the most important question, which is “why?” Why does it matter to you? Why is it so important to you? Why is it so special to you? I’ve had too many conversations with my friends, with my family, with my students that stop just before I ask that important why question. I listen well but rarely delve into the deeper reasons why someone is feeling frustrated or happy or angry or sad. My whole life, I’ve wanted more meaningful connections with people. But they don’t come from finding out what happened, but from asking why it was important. And so this week, I’m focusing more on the whys and making sure I leave nothing on the table.
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