Is “Why Bother?” the Most Urgent Question of Our Time?

This is a question that should bother us a great deal, because how individuals answer it affects the rest of society.


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Why bother? All of us have probably asked ourselves that question when faced with a difficult choice—especially when it’s a choice between doing what is hard and what is easy. It’s a question young people often struggle with, if incentives do not seem compelling or consequences seem doubtful. Consider the student asking “why bother” to study math, technology, science or engineering? It’s easier to study less demanding or perhaps more glamorous subjects.

Young people might ask this question when thinking about other critical turning points in life. Why bother finishing school, taking a job, building a home, raising kids, being faithful or true?

Why bother? The impulse to ask this question can arise in many situations and at any crossroad in life. I can imagine the question coming up in all sorts of provocative or controversial ways that convey its momentousness. Considering these examples should make us uncomfortable.

 Why bother to start a new machine shop or take a new product to market when profits might be sucked away by taxes, fees or regulations?

Why bother to work hard at an honest job when handouts will keep you going anyway?

Why bother to make commitments that involve duty, responsibility and sacrifice when you can get the same rewards or benefits, at least in the short term, without giving up a thing?

Why bother to respect traditions, history, legacies or ideals when others are scoffing at these things or demeaning those who do?

Why bother to uphold values that necessarily make judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad, useful or hurtful? Anything goes.

Why bother to work for equality, justice, tolerance or peace? It’s every man for himself.

Questions like these are usually contemplated quietly or in secret, yet the responses can be transcendent. Despite the personal, internal and private context, the outcomes have social, external and public dimensions as well. Much hangs in the balance, and the potential to unbalance the future is present, for one and for all.

When we see failure, despair, apathy, inertia or neglect, we might look for underlying instances when the Why Bother? question came up and examine the circumstances that led to a negative or nullifying response. This inquiry could lead to insights suggesting genuine solutions or transformative remedies. What better incentives could have been offered? What consequences were ignored or downplayed?

Lately it seems that the whole country is engaged in contentious conflicts over issues that are deeply polarizing. Civility, humility, patience and openness are often missing in these debates. If these virtues were present, I believe some degree of resolution or reconciliation would be attainable. In particular, opposing sides ought to reflect on the Why Bother? dilemma that certain positions are likely to elicit. This might be a sobering reality check on good intentions, or it might expose blind spots in dearly held viewpoints or beliefs.

Why bother? This may be the most urgent question of the era. It needs to be confronted.


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