Tonight I talked to a friend who is going through a crisis. Her situation is completely out of my own personal experience. And yet something about the conversation felt very familiar. Her pain felt familiar. Her fear. And the question underneath: Why me?
As a cancer patient, I was very familiar with this question that most of us find ourselves asking at some point in our lives. Most cancer patients ask their doctors this question. Ask their spouses. Their families, thier friends. Ask God, the universe or anyone else willing to listen.
Some people accept their cancer diagnosis and move forward without stopping to ask. That was’t me. I asked this question a lot.
And like most people, aside from Joan of Arc, I never got an answer. At least not an answer that satisfied me. The best answer I heard was: “why not me?” (Maybe because I’m Jewish, and Jews supposedly like to answer a question with another question.)
For months this plagued me. Why did I have to suffer? Why didn’t it happen to a bad person instead (I could easily have filled in some names.) Why was life so unfair?
I’m not a philosopher, and I’m not deeply introspective, so I wasn’t asking this question on a profound level. Nothing existential that could have puzzled someone like Spinoza or Maimonides— maybe not even Dr. Phil. If you really let yourself go deep with this type of question, maybe you’re more likely to come up with answers. Or more questions.
I didn’t do that. Ultimately I stopped asking a thousand times a day and dialed it down to a hundred times a day. After months of cancer treatment, sometimes I got through a day without asking more than a few times. And then at some point, I stopped asking at all.
I never did get the answer but I stopped asking because the question didn’t apply anymore. Mostly because I was alive. And besides, other people had the same question. People who were also good. People who had cancer and people who had things even worse.
And then a funny thing happened. Further down the road, after I stopped asking and even stopped thinking about this very much, I started asking again: “Why me?” Only now I was asking the question in reverse: not, why was I going to die? But– why had I lived? Why had I lived when my prognosis was so dire and my odds were so poor? Why had I lived when other women were dying? What am I supposed to contribute?
It’s commonly called survivor’s guilt, felt by people who walk away from plane crashes or collapsed buildings. How can you not feel guilty and confused when everyone around you has died. Why were you chosen to live?
For me, this question has not faded over time. 13 years after my diagnosis and survival, I’m still asking. The difference is that now I know there is an answer–some mission or purpose meant for me, something I’m destined to contribute, some reason I was allowed to live.
So “Why me?” remains a question without an answer. Probably this is the way it should be, and was meant to be. Because If I knew the answer, I would probably stop searching.