This is a post about how I do exegesis. When I was three or four, I would often ask my mother “Why” questions. Often they were questions about math, but sometimes about other topics. Her stock answer was, “You’re too young to understand. You’ll understand when you are older”.
Much later, I realized that she was just blowing me off, and simply didn’t want to say “I don’t know”. I asked her about this after I was 30, and she confirmed. But I now realize that her dismissal tactic was genius; whether intentional or not.
When you’re three or four, you believe everything your mother says. So when she said, “You’ll understand when you’re older”, I believed it. For the problems that I really cared about, I would sometimes demand that she tell me what age I would be when I understood. Sometimes she would say 10; sometimes she would say 12. I vividly remember a number of occasions where I panicked upon hearing this, thinking, “What if I forget to answer the question on my tenth birthday?!?” I would repeat the question to myself every single day, multiple times, so that I would be guaranteed to remember the question. I eagerly anticipated my 10th birthday, where I envisioned myself repeating all of the questions to myself and having the answers magically appear in my mind.
Of course, I never asked the questions on my tenth birthday, and I forgot some of the questions. Answers came when they came, and my childlike credulity was quickly replaced by the skepticism of an accomplished liar. But those early experiences shaped the person I became:
- I learned very early to train my long-term memory. I was desperate to know the answer, and the only way to know the answer was to remember the question until I was “old enough”. If my mother had given me some glib bullshit answer, I might’ve believed it and not even bothered remembering. If she had said, “I don’t know”, I might’ve decided that it was OK to stop caring.
- It’s worthwhile to believe that there is an answer, and that you will one day understand. Many times, I solved problems that others failed to solve, for no other reason than that I was certain “There is an answer, and it will feel good to discover it.” Throughout my life, I watched as people gave up and failed to see things that were right in front of their faces, because they convinced themselves that there might not be an answer, or that they would never be able to figure it out. In my experience, this is how the vast majority of people think, and it’s absolutely tragic. Nobody should think that way. If you don’t understand something, it’s only because you’re not old enough, and it’s that simple. If you have unanswered questions, you have something to look forward to. Of course, if you prove conclusively that some specific question is impossible to answer, that just means that you understand it, and that’s great! Until you’ve proven that there is no answer, you have no business saying that you will never know.
- Remembering the problem and being able to recognize when the answer is available is more important than stubbornly trying to brute force an answer. Things will happen when the time is right.
- Half of the answer is in formulating the problem. To remember the questions, I had to repeat the question subvocally over and over again. Some of the questions I had, I couldn’t even properly articulate in words, and therefore I couldn’t remember them by rote repetition. These problems vexed me greatly, because I could see the problem clearly at the moment, but I knew I would lose it. I still encounter problems like this, and they are motivation to get better at defining and articulating problems.
- Even if you have an answer that’s perfectly valid, you never have the answer. There were times when I thought I understood an answer, but I wasn’t yet 10, so I wasn’t sure if I had the full answer. There were other times when I gained a new understanding that replaced an old (albeit, useful) understanding, confirming my suspicion that I hadn’t fully understood. This means that there is always something to look forward to.
I’ve read a few child psychologists who say that attention-starved children ask “Why?”, because they’ve learned that this is the question that receives the most verbose answers. And when a parent has finished answering, the child can just say, “But, why?”, and trigger another long interaction. If you believe this theory, you should respond to every “why” question with long bullshit answers that make your children feel like you’re paying attention.
In my experience, though, the theory is wrong. Kids actually want to understand things, and you should encourage that desire. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that you should tell your kids, “You’ll understand when you’re older”. I suspect that technique is a total crap-shoot.