That is, if you haven’t already.
A woman I once knew told a story about herself. She was a formidable woman, considered a spiritual guide by many people who knew her.
Privately I thought she came on a bit strong. This was long enough ago that I was still uncomfortable with the unspoken challenge I felt when in the presence of a woman who assumed leadership and who didn’t ask for approval or permission.
She didn’t ask for permission to tell this story, but tell it she did, and it changed the way I saw her and the way I saw myself.
I don’t know if that was her intention. It’s a simple little story, an anecdote from her life, but it has served me well in the years since I heard it.
The woman fell ill while traveling in a foreign country. She was very ill indeed, and this country, wherever it was, had sketchy health services, which was one of the reasons for her trip in the first place.
Luckily she was not traveling alone. Her companion was a nurse, resourceful and competent and good in emergencies. While the woman suffered through bouts of dysentery and nausea, by turns shivering and sweating as her temperature soared, the nurse stayed by her side, calmly doing what she could for her.
This went on for some days. There was a problem in the country, one that meant service to the single airport in the region was shut down. There was no air conditioning or hot water in the hotel, but the hotel was still a better option than the clinic in town.
Twisting in her sweaty sheets, her head pounding and her guts roiling, all she wanted was to go home, yet still there was no way to leave. Between sips of the boiled water laced with sugar and salt that her nurse friend kept urging on her, the woman asked in a pitiable voice:
The nurse’s response was immediate.
Why not you?
At first, the woman was shocked at her friend’s heartlessness. After all, here she was, sick and miserable and stuck in a stifling room halfway across the world.
On the other hand, she had someone who had stayed by her side, keeping her hydrated and cleaned up and, so far, alive. So what if she’d come to this country with lofty intentions of helping its inhabitants? Nothing about that made her special or invulnerable.
If the nurse had jumped on the pity train with her, it would only have reinforced her sense of victimhood. Instead, like a splash of cold water to the face, it snapped her out of it.
The question, “Why me?” comes straight from the ego. It’s a whine from the small self, offended by what it sees as a failure of the universe to meet its long list of conditions. This isn’t supposed to happen to me, says the ego. I’m special.
No, it didn’t instantly cure her of her illness — it took her weeks to recover, once she’d finally gotten home. A virus had gotten through her defenses. It could happen to anyone, and that time it happened to her. She wasted no more energy on feeling punished or persecuted, then or ever again.
This story came to my rescue many times, especially seventeen years ago when my first husband came home early one summer afternoon from the specialty lumber business he ran, feeling tired and out of sorts. He lay down to take a nap, went into cardiac arrest, and never woke up again.
Two days later, numb with shock, there I was in the woodshop making out paychecks and helping to unload a shipment of lumber. The following months and years were hard. Wondering why me would have made them harder. When I was tempted to do so anyway, I remembered: why not me?
My husband died less than a year after 9/11. Why any of those people?
The question, “Why me?” comes straight from the ego. It’s a whine from the small self, offended by what it sees as a failure of the universe to meet its long list of conditions. This isn’t supposed to happen to me, says the ego. I’m special..
When you get the devastating diagnosis, when the business you’ve slaved away on for years goes belly up due to circumstances beyond your control, or when the airline cancels your connecting flight to the interview for your dream job on the opposite coast — this is when you are tempted to ask, out loud or internally, why me?
The answer is always the same. Why not you? Should this be happening to somebody else instead? This is, after all, your experience.
Do what you can to steer it in a better direction, if that’s possible. Allow for grief and disappointment when they’re warranted. But ruminating on the perceived injustice of the thing only extends your suffering.
Asking yourself why not me can also serve you when considering a challenge over which you do have some choice. There may be good and reasonable answers to that question, but by asking it of yourself you may strengthen your resolve, or find your courage bolstered, or rekindle your sense of possibility.
Why should you be the one to get the role, or the coveted position, or the book deal, or the attention of that alluring someone across a crowded room?
Well, why not you?