Sometimes, I wonder why this is my life. Wonder isn’t the right word. What is the word? It’s this pleading for understanding. Crying when you’re alone and begging–genuine begging. For what? It feels like being in dark ocean water without a landmark to swim toward. I want to know the answer. Why? Why is this my life?
Some people ask “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did this happen to me?” The emphasis here is on deserving, and the worth of the person in question. But that isn’t what I’m asking. I honestly don’t think I deserve better than I have. “Deserve” doesn’t come into it. It isn’t a moral issue. I have not seen evidence that the circumstances of our lives are influenced by our moral value. Actions have consequences, but you don’t get cancer because you are bad person. Just like you aren’t born into a conflict zone because of who you are. It happens. And it’s not about you.
My question, therefore, is why is my life this. Why is my life illness and headaches and isolation when the typical trajectory for a person like me is so different?
I think people forget that I was healthy, that I was normal. My body did all the typical things. It was right. All was good. If Newton’s law of motion applied to my potential, life was going to go a certain way. But an external force acted upon me, and stopped me in my projected path. It killed the person I thought I was, who I thought I would become. I want to know why that happened. But I don’t get to.
This is perhaps one of the hardest parts of life–accepting it. Without explanation. Without reason.
Once, sitting around a campfire eating apple pie, I asked a group of friends who aren’t afraid to think difficult thoughts whether they believed that all things–even illness and a disappointed life–work for good. I wanted to know, even if I don’t get to know why, does all this at least have a purpose for me? Their answers mostly echoed my own “I don’t know,” but someone added a thought that sticks with me: maybe good isn’t handed down as a gold sticker for suffering. Maybe good takes work.
People say that suffering builds character. It’s basically a requirement of television contests that contestants have had some sort of trauma to have triumphed over, that way the audience knows they’re rooting for a good person. In the Netflix show Kimmy Schmidt–if any show comes close to portraying what it’s like to leave the tower, this is it.–in the season one episode “Kimmy Goes on a Date,” Kimmy asks what I wonder about myself. She says “Do you think going through something like that makes you a better person? Or deep down, does it just make you bitter and angry?” She goes on to list all the ways in which she is not OK and her date, to who the question was addressed, begins to chastise the dog he imagines is under the table. (This is the last episode before Kimmy’s love life gets better than mine.) “Do I ever get to be normal again?” Kimmy asks, and I ask that right along with her. Kimmy doesn’t get an answer, but I think I know mine.
When I was really, truly, unbearably miserable my dad used to make a cross on my forehead with his thumb and tell me about his favorite saints who were sickly as kids but grew up to be great people. It helped me a lot in those roughest hours to make a correlation between the childhood condition and the people they became. It helped me to think that I was maybe one of them. It helped me to think my dad thought I was one of them. Eventually I realized that all of the people he told me about lived in times when childhood illness was a given, not an exception, and they grew up to be exceptional people but others dealt with the same circumstances and grew up to be bitter and angry.
Did I need to go through all of this to be made into something good? Yikes. I don’t know that I am better for what I have been through, or am currently living. How can I know? I was a pretty nice kid at 12, I think. Maybe a bit whiny, but certainly not a worse person than other 12 year olds. But am I worse for my illness and isolation? Honestly, maybe. I don’t know that either. I have a tendency to romanticize who I would have been, and in my head, she’s great. She probably volunteers more. She definitely donates more money because she has a full time job. I sometimes worry that isolation makes me self-centered, and I know that missing out on so much has made me jealous. I use humor to deflect the sting of bitterness that I sometimes can’t keep to myself. I don’t think that’s a sign of my superior wisdom and character.
So let’s suppose, like my friends from the campfire suggested, that good takes work. Maybe purpose and character are not given, but built. The last question I have then is what can I do with this? I don’t get to know why this is my life, or if it is good, or if I am better for it, but I can make something out of it. It might not be better than something I could have made if I were healthy–a full time lawyer can do a lot that a 20 hour a week paralegal just cannot, for example, so don’t argue with me–but it can be good.