I dare say that for many of us, there is an acceptance that suffering, pain, and misfortune are part of our natural human existence. It is a reality that is confirmed daily through various media: A vacation truck veers off a mountainside, killing all passengers; a boat sinks off the coast of India with 50 drowned; a fatal accident happens at the corner of our seemingly safe local byways, killing two women. Not to talk of the astronomically grand losses of lives in hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, and mud slides. Some of the disasters appear utterly senseless: a doctor’s entire family of wife and two daughters are murdered in their own home in Connecticut; a congresswoman is shot as she dutifully carries out her service to her constituents, six are killed in the melee including an innocent civically-minded nine-year old and a 69-year old federal judge in Arizona. Our family friend’s cousin goes to work in the United Nations Building, Abuja, Nigeria, never to come home again to wife and family. Post the 10th Anniversary of 911, the issue of adversity is global and timeless, yet personal.
Even with its national significance, 911 is owned by individual citizens. The nation’s psyche has both been hurt and strengthened, but we try to keep the families–one child, one spouse, one father, one mother, one lover at a time — in mind. As I listened to some accounts of family members of the heroes on Flight 93, I was especially touched by the bravery of Deena Burnett. As she took what would be the last call from her husband on that plane, she recalled having had a premonition of an early death when years earlier, Todd had proposed to her. She explained that it was as if the Lord had asked her, literally presented the option to agree to this pact or opt out before saying “Yes” to the marriage proposal. With a calm and painful acceptance that she had been forewarned, she accepted this fate. She could see how that revelation was a preparation for 911 and the roles her husband and she would play to “save” America. It was a chilling yet faith-filled account.
Deena Burnett’s preparation for the tragedy that awaited her is obviously an exceptional case. I return to simpler scenarios. In our daily encounters, what differentiates the responses we may have towards suffering and bad news? What does it take for one person to respond to the doctor’s confirmation of an inoperable tumor or the loss of a beloved one with a “Why me?” and another possibly with a “Why not me?” Is the latter even remotely possible or realistic?
My sister friend had been burdened once again with a loss in the family: first a son, then a young brother. Why wouldn’t she ask “Why me?” Surely, when the world seems to be collapsing around us, no matter the type of bad news, it is natural to ask “Why me?” However, my friend did not respond as such. In fact, as we wept and grieved the passing of our beloved brother and friend, she resolutely turned to the Lord and declared she would not let go of God, she would not budge on her faith, and she was ready to take whatever trials the Lord allowed her way. I was utterly humbled by her reaction and so continued my soul searching on this question. What does it take for her not to respond with a “Why Me?” I had also listened to Oprah’s interview of Dr. Petit who admitted that while he had no answers as to why his family was murdered in a span of a few hours in their family home in Connecticut, he yet would not doubt God’s love. So what makes one Christian dwell on “Why me?” and another refuse to go down that path? Could these differing reactions and the accompanying emotions, rationalizations, and soul searching be telling of more intriguing perspectives about life in general and spiritual orientation in particular?
It’s justifiable for the one who suffers to say to others: “You don’t understand. If only you were in my shoes . . . Don’t placate me until you have walked in my shoes.” As I contemplate these experiences, I suggest and attest that the problem is that if one remains on the path of asking “Why me?,” self pity is likely to follow, then depression, and even anger towards others perceived as living seemingly “normal or problem-free, if not happy lives.” It is a path that spirals downwards into further pain. The “Why me?” may lead to a self-absorption that comes with or assumes a defeatist attitude to suffering and a surrender of sorts to pain. It is a question whose answer is futile because there is no good way to answer it. We could try several rejoinders such as: “I’ve devoted my life to the care of others and now I’m diagnosed with this horrible illness.” “Truly it shouldn’t be me; I have done so and so and therefore do not deserve this extra pain.” “I’ve done so much for this person and now he/she turns around and stabs me in the back.” It’s a question whose thrust and answer(s), if there are any, may lie underneath a self-righteous attitude.
Particularly, in these hard economic times, it is easy to slip into the “Why me?” when one has searched for a job for two years and counting. Again, understandably so. But then again, could that lead to a self righteousness that may translate into this: “I’m too good to be given this cross?” Could it equally imply an unawareness, an indifference, or a lack of appreciation of other people’s suffering? Any of those assumptions are of course faulty. The Word of God says and life confirms it that no one is spared a dose of suffering once in a while. Suffice this argument not to get into the question of why we suffer at all. Briefly though, as Christians we may suffer to reveal His glory. It may be for our chastisement as our Father rightly chastises and disciplines His children.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2Corinthians 4:17)
“My son, despise not the chastening of the lord; neither be weary of His correction: For whom the Lord loves, He corrects; even as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3: 11-12)
Be that as it may, when as Christians we are confronted with adversity, if we dwell on asking “Why me?” we may ultimately succumb to the thoughts of “What did I do to deserve this? It is other people’s fault that I’m in this state. God must not love me.” As we can see, it is a self-focused path that’s laden with anguish, anger, or/ and guilt. The self-centered nature of the “Why me?” attitude denies pain suffered by others. The truth, however, is that because pain and suffering are not always obvious, physical, or known, no one ever truly knows what others are going through. The popular story is told of the man who asked St. Peter to be allowed to pick another cross from a room full of crosses. His presumption had been that his cross was too heavy. He proceeded to point to a little cross in the corner only to find out that was exactly the cross that he already had, compared to the other bigger crosses in the room. Needless to say, he stopped complaining or trying to pick another cross.
Rather than dwell on “Why me?” in the face of a devastating personal grief, it may serve us as Christians to turn to an alternative response, “Why not me?” This latter response is more of an experience than an utterance and comes from a place of humble turning to someone greater and wiser than we are – God. The self focus of “Why me?” is replaced with a reaching out to God. The frantic anguish of “Why me?” is substituted with a calm stoic attitude with a “Why not me?” The underlying acknowledgement shifts from self-centered pity to other-centered altruism — “If not me, who?”
The heart that is able to surmount a “Why not me?” in a time of tragedy makes practical a number of Christian principles:
• An acceptance of the universality of suffering as well as our membership in a suffering humanity.
• An acknowledgment of our human vulnerability rather than a reliance on our human strength.
• A dependence on Jesus: His strength is made perfect in our weakness because His grace is sufficient.
• A seeking of God’s will and direction in the midst of the adversity or pain.
• An ability to see the bigger picture that all things do work for good for those who love the Lord.
• An acknowledgement, most importantly, of our partaking in Christ’s suffering. If He, the Son of God, suffered and died for us, then our taking up our crosses and following Him is within our Christian walk.
• A belief in the promise that we will triumph and overcome, coupled with the experience of peace that passes all understanding.
(Galatians 2:20; Job 5:6-27; Gen. 8:22; Luke 9:23; Acts 17:3; 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; Romans 8:37-39; Philippians 4:7)
In essence, here’s what happens to us when we adopt the attitude of “Why not me?” when faced with adversity.
1. We are released from any burden of guilt because we turn to the Father who is just and always willing to forgive.
2. We are released from anger towards others who may have been seen, advertently or inadvertently, as the cause of our suffering. It becomes a sure way to turn the other cheek and forgive.
3. We are released from jealousy because other people around us are free to live their lives and carry their own burdens. Indeed, we become more understanding of one another’s shared humanity and in turn, help one another to bear our crosses.
Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
For every man shall bear his own burden (Galatians 6:2, 5; Jonah 4: 1-10)
The suffering heart who asks “Why not me?” has released all questions and doubts to the rightful place –at the foot of the Cross. Jesus remains the only one who can and has promised to bear our burdens. Such a heart refuses to trust self but rather embraces God’s sovereignty and wisdom.
Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:27-29)
Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)
“Why me?” is backward looking, guilt-finding, blame- apportioning, shame- ridden and sometimes prideful whereas “Why not me?” is forward-looking, guilt-free, and focused on God. It’s victorious, empowering, and deeply spiritual. Finally, it places the Christian on a solid footing to fight the only way the Word of God teaches us to fight –spiritually– casting down imaginations, seeking obedience to God, and putting on the whole armor of God. It’s a response that orients us to hear and experience God in our pain and to surrender to Him, so that He may lead us through or/and out of it. (2 Corinthians 10: 3-5; Ephesians 6: 10-13; 1Corinthians 3:13).
PostScript: In 2006, I first wrote a journal on this topic. I then wrote the original piece of this article sometime last year. My daughter and her sister friend had been in an accident on the freeway. The friend’s mother, another friend, and I had gone to pick them up. All we could sum up was a mighty thanksgiving to God for their safety and protection as both of the girls were totally unharmed in what could have been a different story. As we stood there thanking God, the friend said, “You know we always seem to come up with “Why me?” when tough things happen. Why don’t we ever ask the same question when good things happen?” It was food for thought that energized me to write the first version of this reflection. However, I made some changes while certainly thanking God for using age to smooth out the rough edges of this writer’s understanding and appreciation of suffering . . . and compassion. Admittedly, I’m still on that journey.