Why did I get sick?
After receiving a diagnosis, it’s the first thing you ask. Maybe not out loud. But in your head, in your heart. In that deep, secret place inside, you start asking, “Why did this happen to me, God?” Even if you don’t believe in God, the question often gets directed there, or so I’ve noticed. Maybe it comes out as,
“Why did this happen to me in the grand scheme of things?”
“Really?!? Universe? Really? Why are you plotting against me?”
“What in the hell did I do to deserve this?” (Implying that there is some “force” dolling out consequences to the deserving and undeserving among us.)
I’ve heard all these questions and more from atheists, agnostics, and life-long people of faith after receiving the blow from a life-altering diagnosis. When our health, well-being, and mortality hang in the balance, we start asking “Why? Why me? Why did this bad thing happen to me?”
For you word geeks out there, here’s one to add to your Scrabble arsenal: Theodicy. Asking, “Why did this bad thing happen to me?” is a question of theodicy. Theodicy is the study of the problem of evil in the world and God’s role in the cause of evil. (And let’s be real for a minute, shall we? Cancer is evil. It is f*cking evil. Now that we’ve established that…back to the vocab lesson.) No matter what your take on religion is, asking “Why did I get sick?” is a question of theodicy. You are trying to figure out the justification for your illness.
First, know this: asking “Why?” is normal. Absolutely normal. We all wrestle with the why question, especially when bad stuff hits. It’s one of the unanswerable questions that begs and pleads for answers, as if knowing why would bring us some relief.
Geez…How I wish that were the case.
We look for answers in lots of places. We can look at it scientifically, for instance. The reason why we contract illness and disease is a scientific one: we live in a cause and effect world where some of us get sick due to a contracted illness or because we are genetically prone to do so. For others, it’s a combination of the two. Many of us are still waiting for scientists and doctors to determine the “why” for us. But here’s the thing — knowing what caused our illness is different from asking why illness exists in the first place. My mom and her siblings, who also had cancer, did genetic testing. We know that genetics was not the cause for her uterine cancer. I know this. And yet, I still sit with the lonely, empty-yet-encompassing ache that pleads, “Why did my mom have to get sick with cancer and die?”
Again, it’s a question of theodicy.
People tend to offer reasons in the face of cancer and other life-sucking diagnosis. Unless we’ve learned the golden, life-giving lesson that just being with people in their pain is really, actually enough, which most of us have not, we rush to fill the silence with something, anything that sounds good – good on the surface. It may be absolute crap underneath, but at least, for this moment, we’ve masked the pain with justified smiles on our faces and gross justifications of “why”on our breath. Regrettably, you’ve heard too many of these I’m sure:
God is trying to teach you a lesson.
…To which you think, “Really?!? ‘Cause I’m positive God could have just sent a memo and saved me the hassle.”
Or, perhaps you’ve heard
This must be punishment for *fill in the blank with some shady moment from your past*.
…To which you think, “Have I been THAT bad? Um, NO. I have not.”
Or, maybe someone said to you
God is trying to teach other people a lesson through your life.
…To which you think, “I did not sign up to be somebody’s object lesson.”
Or, maybe you’ve been told
God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.
…Which usually comes at your lowest, I-can’t-do-this-anymore moment, so your first inclination is to throttle the person until you realize that jail time, on top of cancer, would be a total pain in the ass. Then all you’re left with is, “If that is true, I am absolutely screwed.”
When people actually die, the bad answers to the question of why multiply like rabbits. I’ve heard ghastly answers to the why question uttered when people die, especially young people. We’ll deal with those in another post.
Here’s what I know as someone who’s earned her Master of Divinity degree and studied this sort of thing.
Here’s what I know as someone whose mom died from uterine cancer leaving behind a beautiful life with grandbabies who will never remember her or know her. Here’s what I know as someone who’s sat by people’s hospital beds, held their hands, prayed with them, celebrated when the news came back ‘cancer free’, and presided over too many of their funerals. Here’s what I know theoretically, personally, and professionally:
– Your suffering is not so that you may gain some cosmic lesson.
– Your diagnosis is not payback for mistakes in your past.
– You are not a puppet on a string, being manipulated so others can watch and learn.
– You are not a super hero who has to buck up and soldier on because you *should* be strong enough to handle anything…even this.
No. What I know in my bones is this: Life is hard. Sometimes people get sick and we don’t know why. God knows you and loves you and weeps when you are weeping. God is with you in the pain and holds you close. Sometimes, we only know the love of God through the love of people – so hold on to each other. It’s how we stay afloat in the sea of unanswerable questions. It’s what we hold onto when easy answers threaten to sink us. God’s not conspiring against you. God’s with you all the way.
Until next time, Lofties….breathe deep.