Image by Oberazzi via Flickr
Though I've never seen any research studies proving this, I'd wager that one of the most commonly asked questions by those struck with chronic illness is "Why me?" They may not express it very often verbally, but using myself as a guide, I'd say this little two word query crosses the mind of most patients several times a day. I find that it often leaps to the forefront of my consciousness as I watch the evening news, with its daily parade of murderers, child molesters, and assorted miserable scoundrels, all sauntering along under their own power without need of a wheelchair, cane, or brace. Certainly, the universe must be upside down. Granted, I'm no angel, but the fact that Charles Manson can do jumping jacks to his heart's content, and I'm stuck relying on a set of wheels sprouting from my backside to simply get across the living room is just plain wrong. Is there no justice?
Well, the short answer is, no, there is no justice. Justice is a human construct, an invention we use to placate the need we have to see perceived bad punished, and good rewarded. The question of whether or not we live in an ordered universe has been a subject of puzzlement for mankind since we developed the mental capacity for self-awareness. My Zen leanings have me wanting to believe that somewhere a universal accounting is taking place, but there's a considerable part of me that can't shake the notion that this is all just one big jumbled game of pickup sticks, a tangle of randomness and happenstance in which we are caught up like the silver ball in a pinball machine, being buffeted from bumper to bumper. Still, shoving all rationality out of the way, the mind screams insistently for an answer, why me!
I get my hair cut by a delightfully wacky Thai woman who practices a strange sort of evangelical Buddhism. I've always had a knack for attracting the eccentric, most of whom I develop some real affection for, this lady no exception. She told me that her meditations have revealed to her that I suffer from Multiple Sclerosis in this life because in my past life I was an alcoholic who was cruel to animals. She also told me that my wife Karen is stuck as my caregiver this time around because we were together in my previous inebriated incarnation, and Karen was the dastardly miscreant who kept me swimming in booze. Due to these previous shared misdeeds, we're both paying the piper in our present manifestations. Her advice: stay away from the firewater, and carry around breadcrumbs to feed any birds I encounter on my wheelchair excursions, committing some random acts of kindness to make up for whatever heinous violations I visited on our furry and feathered friends in my previous life. I'm not quite sure I buy this story, but my mind shrieks for an answer to "why me?", and, lo and behold, the universe has provided me with one, along with a pretty decent haircut. So there.
A funny thing I've noticed about human nature (at least, this human’s nature) is that when awful things befall us, we're quick to ask "why me?" but when fortune smiles upon us, we don't question our deservedness, or the astounding wisdom of the universe. Back in June, 1994, I won $14,000 in the Florida lottery. The night before, I'd gone shopping in the supermarket on my way home from work, and then realized I'd forgotten to buy some butter. I stopped at a grimy little convenience store near where I lived to rectify the situation, and while waiting on line to pay for my item, I got stuck behind a guy buying what seemed like hundreds of dollars worth of lottery tickets. Figuring what the hell, when I finally made it to the cashier, I spent a buck on a Fantasy Five ticket, letting the lottery machine pick my numbers for me. The numbers on the ticket read 10, 15, 20, 24, and 25. I made mental note of the relative symmetry of the randomly generated numbers, and put the ticket in my wallet.
The next day, I started feeling sick at work (the result of the convenience store butter?), and went home soon after lunch. Once home, I started to climb into bed, newspaper in hand, when glancing at the front page I noticed that the Fantasy Five winning numbers included 10, 15, 20, and 25. Relatively sure that those numbers matched the digits on my ticket, I reached for my wallet to see just how close I'd come to winning the jackpot. I quickly confirmed that four of the numbers on the ticket matched those listed in the newspaper, and saw that the fifth number was 24. Checking the newspaper, I was shocked to see the number 24 nestled between the 20 and the 25. I had won the big one, all five numbers on my ticket miraculously matching the winning numbers listed in the newspaper. A quick call to the phone number listed on the back of my lottery ticket confirmed that I was indeed a winner, and I was told that if I made it to the local lottery office before 3 PM, I could have a check that day. My illness mysteriously lifted, I was soon on my way to pick up a nice big juicy check for over $10,000, the amount of my winnings minus the mandatory sacrifice to the tax man.
I'd imagined winning the lottery millions of times in the past, just as I had imagined being told I had some dread illness innumerable times (I was a very accomplished hypochondriac). My reactions when both situations passed from fantasy to reality bore little resemblance to the scenes that had played out in my mind. Upon winning the lottery, I wasn't shimmying around my apartment, caught up in ecstatic convulsions as I had pictured. I had a good laugh, called a friend to tell them of the news, and then got in my car and picked up my money. When told I had Multiple Sclerosis, I didn't collapse sobbing to the floor or sink into a sudden and permanent state of catatonia, as I had so many times in my mind, but experienced a stab of dismay, a sudden recalibration of my life's priorities, and a resolve to fight this freaking thing with everything I had. Perhaps because of my hypochondria, my diagnosis felt almost like a confirmation of something I'd known my whole life, that I was indeed sick. In retrospect, maybe I wasn't a hypochondriac after all, maybe I innately sensed that something just wasn't right.
Theoretical physicists, starting with Dr. Einstein, have known for quite some time that we live in a universe whose ultimate secrets lie far beyond our powers of comprehension. We can seek to tease apart the intricacies of the universe, but on a very basic level, though we may someday be able to describe them, we will never truly be able to experience them. The most current hypothesis, which draws closer to being proven with each new collision of speeding electrons in a particle accelerator, is that we live not in a universe but in a multiverse, the possibility of infinite parallel universes existing alongside our own appearing ever increasingly to be reality. We very likely exist within a framework of 11 dimensions, of which our puny little minds can only perceive three. There is much that is unseen, but very near.
Perhaps then there are answers to "why me?" somewhere amidst the vast incomprehensible, but they will forever be beyond the powers of our minds to grasp. As my diagnosis with MS and my winning the lottery illustrate, extremely unlikely events happen to each and every one of us, and our efforts to discern some deeper meaning or some recognizable pattern from that which befalls us have about as much chance at success as a beagle has at mastering calculus. Ultimately, the answer to "why me?" is probably best answered by its corollary, “why not me?” Good and bad are meted out to the deserving and undeserving both. Rather than struggle to understand, we must accept, and in that acceptance find the inner strength that is the fuel for the hope that drives the will to fight for that which MS has taken from us, and triumph, if not in body, than in spirit (but hopefully in body).
Be strong, my friends. The answers lie within.