The first question many ask when suffering with serious illness is “Why me?” Suffering seems to invite us to take it quite personally, as if it had something to do with us. Suffering seems to be the only experience when we ask this question. If we win the lottery, would we ask: “Oh why me? What did I do to deserve all this money?” Or on those happy, satisfying days, we don’t seem to reflect on “Why me? What did I do to warrant being so happy?” These questions seem foolish when an abundance of happiness or excess money enters our lives but we do tend to ask the “Why me” question when illness befalls us. In the instances of happiness and money, we focus on being grateful and appreciative. With experiences of illness suffering, we tend to focus on what have we done to bring this level of suffering into our lives. Yes, suffering begs for explanation, but it is our beliefs about suffering that will either enhance or soften our suffering.
I first experienced suffering from illness in my childhood. My grandmother, who lived with us, suffered severe chronic illness from rheumatoid arthritis. I felt the demoralizing effects of suffering. I learned that my grandmother’s chronic pain controlled all of our lives, how well my brother and I would behave on any given day, and how we children became more compassionate because of having a chronic pain sufferer in the family. My grandmother was the center of our lives, but the chronic pain she suffered ruled all of our lives. The disease severely disfigured her hands, caused her knees to be swollen, resulted in her walking with a severe limp, and dictated how well she was able to live her life on any given day. But those disfigured hands made us apple pie, weeded our garden, and lifted numerous cups of tea while we exchanged stories of our lives with her.
But now I would very much like to know if she asked herself “Why me”. Perhaps she didn’t ask the question, or perhaps I didn’t listen. And if she did ask, how did she answer that question for herself. I would also like to ask what meaning and purpose did my grandmother give to this life of chronic pain? I do not recall as a child hearing her ask “Why me” but I do remember as a young child wondering “Why my Grandmother”.
Searching for the answer to “Why me?” can send us on a quest for the rest of our lives trying to determine why did illness happen. We can blame our genetics, lifestyle, or even God for our suffering from illness. But the great enlightenment and wisdom comes when we realize that suffering really has nothing to do with “us,” personally. It has to do with the larger human condition, our common humanity, and that to be alive is to know suffering. Suffering is not partial to any particular gender, race, or religion. It spares no one and favors no one. Suffering can visit the young as well as the old. We cannot go sideways in life to avoid suffering. No one escapes, except by challenging our constraining beliefs about suffering and asking different questions.
To soften our suffering, we need to stop taking suffering so personally. What would happen to our experience of illness suffering if we were to ask: “Why NOT me?” In my clinical practice and personal life, I have met wise, learned, and insightful individuals who understand and believe that the universe is not selecting or choosing them to suffer, and consequently they suffer less despite living with a serious illness.
Would a change in our question invite a change in our experience, in our beliefs about suffering? What would happen if we stopped resisting suffering and instead acknowledged this experience as an essential and obligatory part of living, of being alive? Would “Why NOT me?” paradoxically free us to allow healing to begin and suffering to soften or even vanish? I believe so and have witnessed in my practice that when an individual or family can ask the “Why NOT me?” question, healing has already begun. And I have experienced the power of this question in my own life.
I wish this idea of “not taking suffering personally” had come to me when I wrote my book “Spirituality, Suffering, and Illness: Ideas for Healing” in 2005. But I continue to learn about suffering through my own experiences of anguish and the heartfelt experiences of clients. Suffering is part of living, so I continue to learn from it and try to not take it so personally.