Everything happens for a reason — usually a stupid one. Here are my pontifications on pain and suffering, in the scheme of fate, luck, and other questionable forces of the universe.
When I was 27, a drunk guy at a nightclub yanked me in one direction, while I was turning another. Out went my back.
Three months later, a doped-up driver came into my lane for a game of hit & run, head-on collision — which, thanks to the negligence of a series of doctors, left me with degenerated discs up and down my spine, as well as the onset of arthritis.
A couple of months after that, the low back spasm that left me paralyzed for a good three minutes catapulted me past my terror of needles, into the throes of acupuncture — providing two weeks of pain-free bliss, until I was rear-ended while stopping for a pedestrian at a crosswalk.
Fast forward through…
- the massage therapist who injured my ankle (fashionable shoes? forget it!)
- the chiropractor who tore my rotator cuff
- the MRI machine that electrocuted my back (so much bed, so little booty)
- the artist who squashed my right wrist as I interviewed her for my first-ever New York Times article (don’t ask)
- the 101 other things I’m sparing telling you about
and I found myself not only being tossed into a bubbling cauldron every time I’d clawed my way up the side of a cliff, but also fielding unsolicited interpretations of what it all meant:
From my body sending messages to slow (way, way) down to G-d mysteriously healing me from childhood abuse, and from bad luck to bad karma, doctors, lawyers, friends, and random strangers all voiced an opinion about what was happening to me and why.
Most people, I came to realize, need to find a reason for pain and suffering. It helps them feel safe — secure in the assumption that there is some kind of benevolent justice in the world.
If they do not blame a victim of a trauma or extol the virtues of a horrific experience, they may end up feeling terrified by the randomness and chaos of the world. They may even begin to wonder if they’re next on the list.
And here’s the thing: They might be. We all might be. Earthquakes, fire, disease, war, poverty, muggings, suicide bombings, starvation… Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. So why are people so freaked out — i.e., personally offended (“Why me?”) – when it does?
Moreover, who is to decide the significance of what hits us and how many times? Nobody knows why there is suffering: not rabbis, monks, imams, or priests, not your mother, not my mother, not the drunk on the corner. All we have are ideas, projections, beliefs, and assumptions.
If we push those on other people — rather than listening to their pain and suffering and asking how they need us to be supportive — we unwittingly can add yet another layer of trauma, namely that of emotional and psychological distress.
Besides, how can we possibly evaluate a person’s life and relationship to the universe, based on knowledge of one or a handful of events?
Take the times that I shared the story of some physical injuries I’d endured, and the other person responded not with compassion, but with evaluation — declaring that, among other things, I had bad luck.
Let’s put to the side for a moment the disturbing frequency with which people choose judgment over compassion. I want to focus on this luck thing:
- I was in Manhattan, doing business in the twin Towers a couple of days in a row, just two days before they were blown up. The morning of the attack, I was also scheduled to be on an American Airlines flight — taking the exact route as one of the planes that was hijacked, but a few hours after the incident.
- In a world full of poverty, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and had an elite education, without having to pay a dime for it.
- One afternoon, I was heading towards the garage of my apartment building, when a favorite song came on the radio. I stayed and danced to it. When I finally arrived, a woman in the garage informed me a man had just robbed her there, at gunpoint.
So am I lucky or unlucky? And those are just a few examples from my life.
We live in a world full of contradictions — elation and despair, strength and weakness, tenderness and violence, chaos and order. Chances are that each of us will encounter some combination of all of these things.
We are the ones who choose the focus and create the significance of that which we and others encounter. Rather than using this power to determine everyone’s pecking order in the scheme of things, how about we use it to help people make the most of what’s out there?
As for my own life, after many years of suffering through one injury after another, and after struggling with questions about why those injuries were happening, I realized that the injuries were not in fact the storyline.
The storyline was about what I was doing with those injuries. The storyline was about what I was doing with people’s responses to those injuries.
The storyline was about the fact that one tiny little match was lighting a flame against the otherwise engulfing darkness.