I begin this piece about asking “Why not me?” instead of “Why me?” by retelling a Buddhist story known as The Mustard Seed:
Refusing to believe that her young son had died, Kisa Gotami carried him door-to-door in her village, pleading for medicine. People told her that it was too late for medicine, but she was unable to comprehend them. Then someone suggested that she ask the Buddha for medicine. When she did, he told her to bring him a mustard seed from a house that had never experienced death.
She began going door-to-door again, this time telling people that the Buddha needed a mustard seed to make medicine for her son. No one refused her request. But when she asked, “Has this house experienced death?” the response was always, “Yes, of course,” and so she’d leave empty-handed.
After some time, she realized that impermanence and death were universal. She buried her son and returned to the Buddha. When he asked if she had obtained the mustard seed, she said: “Finished is the matter of the mustard seed. You have restored me.”
This may seem like a harsh tale, but I appreciate how the Buddha knew that the best way for Kisa Gotami to make peace with one of life’s harsh realities was to experience that reality first-hand, rather than listen to a lecture from him.
Whenever I hear the Mustard Seed Story, I think about how I respond to sorrow in my own life. Like everyone else, my life has had its sorrows—some of them deep sorrows. My father’s death when I was ten years old is at the top of the list. Becoming chronically ill in 2001 is near the top.
My father’s death was devastating to me; we were extremely close. One of my responses was to look at other kids my age and ask “Why me?” over and over again, in an achingly painful refrain. I was angry at the world and (it’s hard to admit) angry at my father for dying.
Unfortunately, no one in my life had the skill to tell me a child’s version of the Mustard Seed Story—a tale that could have gently communicated to me that life is unpredictable and can feel horribly unfair but that, with time, I’d be able to accept what happened to my father and begin to enjoy life again.
Many decades later, when I got sick and didn’t recover, the “Why me?” refrain started up again. I blamed myself for losing my career and for having to give up so many activities that I loved. I felt unfairly treated by the world and by my own body. “Why me? Why me?” I’d repeatedly ask. This served only to intensify the resentment I was feeling and the blame I was directing at myself.
I'm grateful that several years after getting sick, I found some help. The Mustard Seed story helped. It enabled me to accept that all people face unexpected upheavals in their lives. This meant that my “Why Me?” refrain—which left me feeling as if I’d been singled out in some way—was a distorted view of the human condition.
I was also helped by the writings of Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. Readers of How to Be Sick
will remember her from Chapter Three, where I quote her saying:
Our life is always all right. There’s nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it’s just our life.
Reading that excerpt from her book Everyday Zen was life-changing for me. “Why Me?” became irrelevant when I realized that there was nothing wrong with my life, even though it included giving up a career years before I felt ready, feeling sick every day, and being severely restricted in my activities. It’s just my life. The realization that there was nothing wrong with my life was a tremendous relief, because it meant there was nothing wrong with me.
Lastly, given my musical tastes, I was helped by an unlikely source—country music singer Rosanne Cash. I write about her in the last chapter of How to Be Sick
In October 2009, I was listening to Terry Gross’ Fresh Air on NPR. She was interviewing country music singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. Cash had been forced to put her career on hold for several years because she had to have brain surgery for a rare but benign condition. Terry Gross asked her if she ever found herself asking “Why me?”
Cash replied “No,” that, in fact, she found herself saying “Why not me?” since she had health insurance, no 9-to-5 job that she might lose during her long recuperation, and a spouse who was a wonderful caregiver.
I know that not everyone is fortunate in the ways that Rosanne Cash cited. For many people, stress over money and lack of support are ongoing challenges. But remember Kisa Gotami from the Mustard Seed Story. No one gets a pass on life’s difficulties, including Ms. Cash: Think about the stress and the fear she must have experienced before and after her brain surgery, with its risks and uncertain outcome.
Rosanne Cash’s “Why not me?” drives home to me the reality that in every household on the planet, in every generation, in every era throughout history, people’s lives have been a mixture of joys and sorrows, successes and disappointments. There’s nothing wrong with us when the going gets rough. It’s just our life. This realization opens the door to self-compassion because it enables us to open our hearts to our struggles with gentle, soothing care, instead of turning away in aversion.
And so, when I start to sink into that “Why me?” way of thinking, whether it be over the unexpected turn my health took in 2001 or over any disappointment or sorrow in my life, I know I’ll feel more at peace if, in a kind and gentle voice, I turn “Why me?” into “Why not me?”
© 2013 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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