“Why me?”

The question “why me?” has two problems. The “why” part, and the “me” part. The why part supposes that there is a reason for what has happened to you. In my case, the question would be “why do I have cancer?”

The why question can be answered in a way. The answer might sound like this: “well, cells need to grow in order for us to live. But when one cell divides into two, there is often mutation, just because there is no such thing as perfect cellular replication. And unfortunately, enough of your pancreas cells (or pick your favourite source) happened to mutate in such a way as to somehow bypass or short-circuit the mechanism that tells your cells to stop dividing when there is enough. And in your case, a particular mutation you were born with has made this more likely. And so now your pancreas cells are dividing out of control, and that is what cancer is. That is why you have cancer.”

But when someone asks “why me?”, this is not the answer they want.

There’s a distinction that goes back to at least Aristotle, between what is called an efficient cause and a teleological cause. When a carpenter fashions a table out of wood, using her tools, both the efficient cause and the teleological cause are at play. When she makes a table, she uses her hands to move certain physical objects, like saws, hammers, and sanders, in particular ways, which end up resulting in a table. In brief, the events that lead up to the table constitute the efficient cause. We would nowadays describe the efficient cause as the “cause”. The teleological cause, on the other hand, is the purpose for which she made the table. Maybe she intends it to be a gift for her parents, for a client who commissioned it, or for use in her own kitchen. This is probably a way-too simplified version of the distinction, but it’ll do for our purposes.

When someone asks “why me?”, they want a a teleological answer; they want to know what purpose their having cancer serves. The question “Why do I have cancer?” is like “Why did the carpenter make the table?” What the question really means is “why was I given cancer?”

But if you don’t believe in God or gods, or some other supernatural agent that makes the things in the world happen as they do, it is hard to ascribe any goal at all. But in a New York Times article from a couple years ago, the psychologists Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom pointed out that many atheists actually believe in fate, which they defined as “the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.” How this makes sense baffles me. Maybe they believe in karma. But how can karma be directed, unless someone is directing it?

It is easy enough to ascribe goals to the things that we humans do, because we have intentions and purposes. We write books, invest in stocks, take out the garbage, because we’re trying to sort things out or tell stories, trying to make money, keep the house clean. We may even say that Fido went to get water because he was thirsty. We also ascribe goals to god or Gods. One might even speculate that it is because humans find it so hard to conceive of events without purposes that we presuppose the existence of gods in the first place. But that’s a side issue. The point is that the less conscious something is, the less we ascribe it with intentions.

Some find purpose in nature, without necessarily assuming a god. If I understand it correctly, the Stoics had this view, as did Aristotle. Aristotle, for instance, thought that acorns intend to become oak trees (or maybe, “nature intends acorns to become oak trees”). Sometimes current science talks in this way too. The giraffe species adapted to have long necks in their particular environment in order to find food, or giraffes are supposed to live in a particular environment. But this is only ever meant metaphorically. It is a shorthand for an entirely different mechanism, which I wish I understood better. I do know that the teleological view of nature has fallen deeply out of favour ever since science started making leaps and bounds in the seventeenth century. Supposing that there are goals to natural objects and natural events hasn’t helped science understand the world at all, and has thus been dropped.

So is there a reason for any of us to have cancer? No, not really. Why any particular one of us might have cancer is really random. And so looking for a reason for you might have cancer is like looking for a reason for why the coin landed on heads, why the dice landed on 8, or, why Joe Schmo won the lottery and you didn’t. There’s no answer to any of it. It just is. Random events occur. And that’s all there is to it.

Maybe you’ll protest, and wonder whether that really matters, because isn’t it healthier to find meaning in life’s events? Doesn’t having this kind of attitude make us more resilient in the face of tragedy? Isn’t it better for one’s well-being to be religious than to be an atheist? To be spiritual rather than not?

I’ve read some psychologists who say so too, though I suspect many atheist scientists would question the research that this evidence was based on. I don’t know which side is right. But even if it’s healthier to be religious or not, it’s irrelevant.

First, we don’t really choose what to believe. When we discover that something is true, we cannot choose to disbelieve it. I believe, for example, that I’m sitting in front of a table, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot not believe this. I cannot convince myself that there is no table here. And on the flip side too: I cannot choose to believe in something if I already think it is false. I cannot make myself believe that there is a large, fluffy pink elephant sitting right next to me. I can imagine it, but I can’t believe it.

Many of us think that our religious beliefs are different from these other beliefs – that we can choose what religion to believe in, that it really is up to us. But I think the value of this statement isn’t in its literal truth; instead, it is in its demand for tolerating and accommodating each other’s religious beliefs.

Maybe it’s possible to develop a religious belief over time. If you surround yourself with people who share a particular religious belief, spend time reading that religion’s literature and avoid reading criticisms of it, maybe, after a while, you would come to believe in it. Maybe. I don’t know. But I doubt that trying to make yourself believe in anything is a good thing to do. And in any case, you certainly can’t choose your beliefs willy nilly.

But what about people who convert to another religion? There are, I admit, those who come to think that the beliefs of another religion are truer than their own. This, I think, happens out of natural shifts in changing one’s mind, not in a deliberate attempt to change one’s mind. There are, however, some who convert to a different religion less naturally, like those who convert to their spouse’s religion. But I don’t think most of these people really believe their spouse’s religion. And even among those who claim to, I doubt that they really are. What is really happening is something altogether different. They are instead professing to believe in something. And that is easy enough to do.

A fan of the Toronto Raptors might say that they are the best basketball team in the NBA, but if she knows anything about basketball, she doesn’t really believe it. And while the psychologists may be right in thinking that it is healthier to be religious, it’s an entirely different question about whether it is healthier to profess a religious belief without actually believing it.

And second, healthier or not, the problem remains. In the sense of whether it is true, it’s still wrong to ask “why me?” At least if you’re an atheist like me who thinks that many things happen without any reason at all.

The second problem with the “why me” question is the “me” part. Asking about “me” presumes that there is something different about you, something special, that makes you unlike the rest of humanity. But the universe, unfortunately, doesn’t think you’re special. In fact, it doesn’t think about you at all.

If this isn’t obvious, flip the question and ask: “why not me?” Or better: “why anybody?” Nature doesn’t discriminate. Cancer doesn’t care. It doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, whether you are wise or ill-tempered, white or black, East Asian or West Indian, smart or dumb, whether you worked hard in life or not. It doesn’t even care whether you are a good person or a bad person. Cancer doesn’t give a shit about karma, about how much you donated to charity, or how many lives you may have saved. (Maybe you’re less likely to get cancer if you never smoked, ate more vegetables, and exercised regularly. But nothing has been known to prevent cancer altogether.)

And this is hard to accept, even for me — a lifelong atheist. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I have always found this moving, and I desperately want to believe that the world will in fact bend toward justice. I want to believe that the wicked will get what they deserve and the good their just rewards. The philosopher Kant thought this desire was so strong and so inexorable that it was better to believe that justice would eventually be served rather than not. We could not go on living our lives as we should, doing what is good and right, if we did not believe that justice would be delivered, at least eventually. And Kant thought that there was nothing that could guarantee this outcome except God. It was thus a moral imperative that we believe in God’s existence. I don’t, however, know what he would say about my qualms about whether we can choose what to believe.

When you hear stories about those who die from cancer, you sometimes hear how he or she never asked “why me?” This is supposed to be praise – as if there was something noble about not asking the question. I have argued that this question is bad, but I don’t think it’s childish or immature.

Asking “why did this happen to me” is perhaps the most natural and the most human of questions. Many psychologists and philosophers think it essential to having a meaningful life that we each create a story about our selves, that we create a narrative that gives an underlying arc to the major events in our lives. I’m not sure if doing so is important to having a meaningful life, but it is definitely true that many of us do it. And the most obvious way of trying to make sense of the events of our lives is to ask why they happened to us in the first place.

Things happen to us, and though we may not use those exact words, we often do ask “why me?” We ask “why me” when we wonder why we didn’t get the job we applied for — perhaps there’s some qualification or skill or charm that we lacked. It’s there when we wonder why our relationship fails — maybe there’s something wrong with us, or maybe something we could have done differently. When our car gets a flat, we wonder whether we should have changed our tires more frequently.

And we ask it when the good things happen too. When we think we got the job because we worked hard, we are answering a version of the “why me” question. When things turn out the way we want and believe that it is because our prayers have been heard, we are again answering just another version of the “why me” question.

In that same New York Times article, Banerjee and Bloom gave us the following story:

… James Costello was cheering on a friend near the finish line at the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded, severely burning his arms and legs and sending shrapnel into his flesh. During the months of surgery and rehabilitation that followed, Mr. Costello developed a relationship with one of his nurses, Krista D’Agostino, and they soon became engaged. Mr. Costello posted a picture of the ring on Facebook. “I now realize why I was involved in the tragedy,” he wrote. “It was to meet my best friend, and the love of my life.”

My initial reaction to Costello’s thinking was this: that’s a good attitude, even if it’s false. And I suspect I’m not alone. Many of us probably think there’s something healthy about Costello’s attitude. (It’s not an attitude that I could ever adopt however, because it depends on beliefs I simply don’t have.) But his understanding of why he was involved in the tragedy is actually an answer to the question, “why me?”

If we think it is somewhat more dignified not to ask “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, logically we must then think it is less dignified to do so. But “less dignified” does not mean “undignified”, just as donating $100, while less charitable than donating $200, is not uncharitable. Still, many of us think “Why me?” a question fit for children, akin to their common complaint, “It’s not fair!” On the other hand, we find it heartwarming to hear someone find an answer anyway; we like it when we hear Costello say that he was involved in the Boston tragedy because it was to meet his “best friend, and the love of [his] life.” But these two tendencies give us a paradox: it is good to find answers to a question we’re not supposed to ask.

There are two ways out of this. Our first option is to insist there is a moral failure with asking the question, that we are right to think it childish, that there is in fact something wrong with Costello’s attitude. It should be noted that this attitude does have potentially harmful consequences. We might begin to think that those who suffer somehow deserve their suffering. We might think that those who live on the streets must have done something to deserve their plight, and even those who were born poor and sickly (who cannot have been guilty of anything) are meant to serve as a lesson for their parents. In short, this attitude might make us less compassionate towards those who suffer. And we might try to justify the inequalities and inequities that this world clearly displays. But I don’t think Costello, and the many others like him, would be so callous. They probably simply don’t see what their attitude, writ large, really implies.

We should then take the second option: to not think it is undignified to ask “Why me?” I don’t think we need to ask “why me” in order to make sense of our lives, but, as I said, it’s really hard not to. What kind of person would we be if we faulted someone for asking it?

So there’s no moral failure in asking “Why me”. But there’s no answer either.