Explaining the Inexplicable

We are all burdened with attempting to answer and explain the inexplicable nature in life, especially to children as they grow up and begin to ask difficult questions. What approach should we take? Should we admit to children that so much in life is inexplicable? How do we turn explaining the inexplicable into important lessons in life?

A child approaches you and begins to ask you a question.

As the words come out, you grimace in fear: though emanating from innocence, naiveté or earnest curiosity, he or she asks you to answer something that you are completely incapable of explaining. Whether philosophical (like the meaning of life or why we are here), or simply unpleasant in nature (regarding the harsh realities of life), what are you to do when confronted with attempting to explain the inexplicable?

You may find yourself stumped because you occasionally or often wonder the same questions. Otherwise, you may hesitate and fumble over a response to a child or adolescent’s difficult question because you fear that an honest answer about the unknown and life’s hardships might confuse or alter the child’s attitude, perceptions and understanding of the world around her.

With such questions, there are seldom “correct” answers, and certainly not any one “proper” way to deliver them to children. In all likelihood, the degree of your response depends on the age and maturity of the child or adolescent; your role as parent, guardian or role model; and the strength and type of relationship that exists between you both.

However, when it comes to something as complicated as explaining the inexplicable to a child or adolescent, a response that is often ignored is one that can give way to a great instance of bonding and offer a lesson in both humility and life: the simple admission of your inability to explain it.

When Teacher Doesn’t Know

As parents, guardians and role models to children and adolescents, we as adults often and innately assume the mantle of teacher — and the questions that are asked to teachers by their pupils warrant nothing short of immediate, outright and thorough answers. But what do you tell the student when the answer is less-than-clear to the teacher, yourself?

Let’s step back for a moment.

Teachers provide more than simple answers. The best instructors provide their students and pupils with answers in the form of lessons. Lessons go beyond the simple, explanatory nature of answers. Personally, when I think of the difference between an “answer” and “lesson,” answers tend to be simpler, often more objective, concrete, regurgitated and fact-based than lessons. Lessons, on the other hand, invoke students to teach themselves: they are more subjective and are often rooted in “big picture” subjects like morality, spirituality or philosophy — all that is greater than ourselves.

So, what better for a teacher to do when confronted with attempting to explain the inexplicable than offer the student a life lesson? A lesson in life can provide so much more to a child or adolescent than a stereotypical, regurgitated answer. After all, what is best remembered by students is not what is dictated to them, but what they teach themselves.

A Lesson for One Becomes a Lesson for Both

I recall one question in particular that came from my 7-year-old god daughter one afternoon, which left me fumbling for the “right” response. On my desk at home sat a thin gold chain with a circular emblem depicting Jesus Christ. She asked what it was and why I had it. I explained that it had belonged to my grandmother who left it for me as a gift. As the discussion unfolded, she asked, “Why did she have to die?”

When my god daughter asked this tough question, the slew of aforementioned concerns and worries crossed my mind in the flash of a few milliseconds. Do I explain that my grandmother got sick from cancer? Do I dare mention that I was her age when my grandmother passed away and risk upsetting her?

In the moment, I ultimately decided to admit that I didn’t know why, and that there is a lot in life that we will never really know for sure. Whether or not she understood my candid response about the unknown nature of life, I cannot say definitively. But, her response was such that she seemed to be calmed and reassured by an adult figure’s admission of the unknown — and that there was nothing wrong with not knowing it.

Maybe I simply lucked out and dodged a proverbial bullet.

I went on to explain to her that even though my grandmother had passed away, the gift that she left for me would always remind me of her; it was as if she would never really be gone. It was something that I, myself, had never even really considered.

In this instance, admitting the inexplicable nature of many of life’s questions ultimately became a lesson in life for the both of us — however small and fleeting a moment it had been. What I find special about such an admission is that in many ways, what is ordinarily a lesson for one — the teacher instructing the pupil — can become a wonderful lesson for the both of them: a bonding experience and a humbling reminder that, as much as we as parents and role models try to embody the decisive position of “gatekeeper” to children, so much in life will forever remain beyond our control.

When you are asked a question that you are unable or incapable of answering, would you ever admit it? When you’re asked to explain the inexplicable, what is your reaction? What is your approach or response?

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