Like everyone else, my life has had its share of 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.
Many decades later, when I got sick and didn’t recover, the “Why me?” refrain started up again. 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 was helped by two women with vastly different backgrounds. The first was 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.
I was also helped by 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, still, 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. 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, whenever I feel myself getting by snagged by “Why me?”—with a sigh of compassion for how difficult life can be—I turn that “Why me?” into “Why not me?” and I feel much more at peace with my life.
© 2013 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
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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.