No Explanation Needed


If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.  1Q84

My son David tells me that math explains everything. He’s a math and science teacher and knows much more than I do about the elegance of mathematics.  Without equations, though, understanding our own universe is often beyond words and sentences.  Explanations don’t come wrapped in gift boxes marked Life, Love, Sickness, Joy, Death.

In 1Q84 a remote and near silent father responds with the statement quoted above to his son’s questions about whether his mother was in love with another man, and whether that other man was in fact his real father.  If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.

I have many questions I’d like to ask my own father, but I don’t.  Maybe I don’t want to know the answers. “Why did you walk out of the house when my mother shot herself?  I was only nineteen.  Why did you leave me with her?”  “Why did you never tell me why you left our lives?”  “Why didn’t you come to my wedding?  My college graduation?”  “Why do you love your step-grand-children more than my sons?”

If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation

My father’s an old man now.  He’s eighty-six and lives in Alabama.  He’s in good health, yet I know he’s slowing down.  What would I gain by asking him these questions?  Maybe he’s forgotten the answers.  Maybe he never knew them.  What would I learn with an explanation that I don’t already know without one?

But…there’s much that’s happy and joyful that we know without an explanation!  Music, a sunset over the Pacific, the very first leaves to fall in late August in New England, a star filled sky.  Who can listen to Die Forelle and not be happy? We all have our own experience of happiness.

I tend to associate my own moments of intense inner joy with quiet times, often when by myself.  I remember a walk I used to take when I was in college in Maine.  I called it The Transcendental Trek, and it went through the woods from Small Point to the far southern edge of Popham Beach.  I’ve walked the route in all four seasons.  Cresting the top of the final hill, with the Atlantic spread out in the distance, never failed to make my heart beat just a little faster—the ocean blue in the summer, steel grey in the winter, always with white caps breaking on to the beach.


Another time in Spain I rode the funicular to the summit of Montserrat near Barcelona and hiked well out across the jagged peaks.  No one else was there.  Freedom was what I saw.  No explanation required. (Another time I unwisely took my family there, Sam still in a stroller, and the trip was a disaster.)


Experiencing the lives of my boys, their births, their first small steps, their delights and laughter and so much more, have given me an immeasurably rich storehouse of happiness.  I can see the sunshine sparkle on Sam’s golden childhood hair, David standing for a saxophone solo in his high school jazz band, Adam playing the piano in our darkened living room when I felt dejected and low myself.  He brought light into that darkness.  I wonder if he knows that, since there’s never been an explanation.

I’ve already described elsewhere the transformative experience I had snowshoeing across the Arctic fells in Lapland.  I can’t explain what happened; it just did.

Falling in love has no explanation, while falling out of love might.  I hope it does, because mystery and misery are a bad combination.


A few weeks ago I spent a Saturday afternoon at the Frick Museum in New York.  It was a cold day in January.  Not many tourists were out and about.  Can a painting elicit a moment of happiness?  Painting for painting, the Frick has what’s commonly regarded as the finest collection of Old Master paintings anywhere.  Hanging in those robber baron rooms, perfectly designed for the collection, each painting speaks directly to the viewer.  They spoke to me. Looking at my favorites—the Van Dyke portraits of the Snyders, husband and wife, the pair of Holbeins, the Vermeers and Titians—I marveled at their beauty and insight into the human condition.  The men and women in these portraits were once flesh and blood, happy or not (Moore and Cromwell not too happy.) I sensed their reality and I felt good to be alive, being there hundreds of years later.

Fellowship brings me special, deep-seated, peaceful joy and serenity.  Camping on the Russian River with a dozen other guys joined in common bonds of experience and friendship; sharing stories of pain and lives regained; no judgments, just a great blanket of security and hope; true friends.  We reach out and touch and feel a different kind of pulse.


Within the past two weeks something special and completely unexpected happened.  A friend from many years ago, someone I haven’t spoken to, or even thought much about, for at least eighteen years, emailed me, having found me thanks to Google.  He had come across a letter I had written him when his wife had died.  He thought I might want to read it and asked if he could mail it back to me.  When it arrived I saw that it was postmarked January 20, 1993—my birthday exactly twenty years ago.  And before I had opened the envelope, a quote from Kierkegaard surfaced from somewhere deep in my subconscious: Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards.  In my letter to my friend, I had paraphrased the exact same quotation.

The universe was speaking, and there was no explanation.  Many of these moments of grace have been happening to me recently.  I’d like to know why, but have to understand with no explanation, because there is no explanation.  In my fellowship we talk about having a spiritual awaking.  I’ve not believed in this; I’m not at all sure that I do now. What I think is that this kind of awakening happens from within.  It doesn’t descend from the sky, like a bolt from Heaven.  When we become ready for what the universe has to give us, we don’t need an explanation.

On rare occasions—very rare in my life—being alone with someone you love is happiness out of time and reality.  These are moments of light, shining light, like fireflies on a summer night.  They glow for an instant and then disappear into the darkness.  Sometimes they twinkle and glow again.  We don’t ask an explanation of fireflies.


Place can make a difference.  It my case it was the difference that allowed the lights to burn brightly, if only for a moment.  Tassajara.  Amsterdam in winter.  On old streets in Tokyo.  They still glow in my memory, a foundation for another journey taken with the confidence of possibility.  Yes I did and yes I can!

No explanation needed.


Leave a comment


  1. Once again a beautiful musing Niland. The quote is pertinent and poignant at the same time, and yet, an understanding of “life past”, may enable “life present” to be interpreted on the fly. Perhaps it is this very ability, through reflection, applied to a moment lived, that enables us to be aware and attuned to the opportunites the universe presents us.

  2. RP Kumar

     /  February 4, 2013



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