Walking in the park

A few weeks ago, while I was walking in the park with my wife, I see an older man, coming from the opposite direction, and I thought to myself: “This man got to live to his 70s, and I probably won’t even live to my 40s. In fact, even from this point on, he likely has more years left than I do. So why should I, a man with a terminal illness and a poor prognosis, move out of the way for this man, who’s had a full life and has more life left in him than I do, just because he’s old and I’m not?”

I then move out of the way and walk behind my wife to give him some space. And I would do so again. If I can still do an act of kindness, I will.

On being calm about death

Near the end of the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise Jedi elder, smiles just before closing his eyes and allowing himself to be struck down by the evil Darth Vader. His face reveals a moment of calmness and acceptance at the moment of death.

Something similar happens at the end of Batman Begins. Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman’s evil but wise mentor, closes his eyes and meditates when his death becomes unavoidable.

The lesson seems to be that the wise are calm at the moment of death. This is not a new idea created and perpetuated by cool Hollywood movies. It is actually rather old.

In the Apology, Plato describes Socrates as accepting his punishment upon death by willingly drinking the poisonous hemlock he is given. And it’s not just in his willingness to die that Socrates is calm, but also in the process of dying. According to Plato, Socrates is aware of how his body dies moment by moment: his limbs go numb first, followed by his torso, and last of all his voice, from which his wise words emanate.

But this description of his death is probably a lie. Hemlock does not make one go numb. Instead it makes one vomit and tremble, among other symptoms, resulting in a painful death. Now one philosopher has gone to great lengths to argue that Plato’s description was, in fact, accurate. But what is interesting to me is why this is an important matter at all, why is calmly dying so important to our image of wisdom?

Let us compare our reaction to Plato’s account of Socrates’ death to our reaction to someone losing their mental and voluntary faculties long before they die. We notice a difference. The first situation inspires awe and respect, and the second, sadness and pity.

I think we should be sceptical of these images of wisdom. Dementia is real and common among the elderly as are serious changes in one’s personality. Someone who was wise and calm in life may turn into a raving and incoherent lunatic before they die. And because one is inextricably subject to the caprices of one’s physical body (including the brain), the moments of one’s death may conceal and obscure rather than reveal who one really was.

But Socrates’ calmness regarding death goes beyond just the physical manifestations during his last minute. It’s present in what he says about death:

since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good….. I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.

This is the logic of his thinking, one couched in terms of hope. The idea seems to be that if we do not know for certain that X will be bad, then there is a possibility that X is good, and thus we should not fear X. And to think that we can know for certain that X is bad is to think we know more than we actually do, which is the hallmark characteristic of a lack of wisdom. Thus, being wise means not fearing death.

This argument is flawed. For one, it is too strong. If we believe that certainty in most knowledge is impossible, as many of us do, it means that we should never be afraid of anything at all, even if it means falling into a pit of lava. We may be fairly confident that it will be very painful, but we cannot know that for certain, for random miraculous things can happen during our descent into the pit.

And we can also question the very premise of this argument — that we should hope when there is a possibility of a good outcome and only fear when there is a certainty of a bad outcome. But why? Why not fear when there is a possibility of a bad outcome, and only hope when there is a certainty of a good outcome?

But more importantly, Socrates’s way of thinking is entirely unBayesian. In particular, it’s far too binary and too extreme. According to Socrates, we should hope when there is even the smallest possibility of a good outcome, and we should fear only when there is certainty of a bad outcome. But this precludes the possibility of having mixtures of fear and hope. Can I not say that I hope 30% that this will be good, but 70% fear that this will be bad? Maybe this doesn’t make sense of our psychology, for it does not describe how we actually think — maybe we cannot have both emotions of fear and hope simultaneously. But there is no logical error in thinking that A is 30% likely, and not-A is 70% likely. In fact, it is more nuanced and precise than simply saying that something is “possible” or “a good chance”. And when we think this way, in terms of assigning likelihoods, how do we conceive of hope and fear? I’m not sure, but we have to abandon Socrates’s approach.

The point of all this is really to ask why we should be calm at the moment of death. For Socrates, it made sense to be hopeful, because one doesn’t know what will happen and what happen might be good. That argument, as I’ve tried to show, is rather ineffective.

There is at least one other reason for Socrates’s calmness. For instance, he didn’t just believe that we did not know that death would be bad, but he believed that the death of the body did not mean the death of the person. In short, he believed in the immortality of the soul. And so did Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars. I’m not sure about Ra’s Al Ghul, but most depictions of mystical wise men portray a faith in the afterlife, and this faith grounds their calmness. I’m not going to argue for this, but I don’t think an afterlife is likely.

So are there any other reasons to be calm at death? One reason might be that it is somehow inherent in wisdom to be calm. But this is a terrible answer. If there are good reasons to be calm, then it is wise to be calm. And if there are no good reasons to be calm, then it is not wise to be calm. Wisdom is not something that exists apart from being able to have and act for good reasons. In other words, to say that one reason to be calm at death is that it is wise to be so is to say very little.

I can only think of one good reason to be calm at death, but the reason is not so strong that if you fail to be calm at death you would somehow lose the title of being wise. The one good reason I can think of is this: it’s generally more pleasant to be calm than to be agitated, and so this is probably true at the moment of dying too. That’s it. It’s a pretty weak claim.

So it’s a good idea to be calm at death, but it’s no big deal if you’re not.

What I want you to know

There’s this pressure among the sick, among those of us with cancer, to fight our illnesses as hard as we can. This pressure has a variety of sources: family members, friends, the culture at large (think cultural depictions of illness like well-known asshole Lance Armstrong), and even others afflicted with cancer. The pressure turns into a particular myth: one’s chances of survival depends on the character and personality of the one afflicted. If you are strong and if you fight and if you hope, you will survive, or at least live longer.

This myth, or a cousin of it, manifests itself among those who are not sick: “if you exercise, eat enough vegetables, meditate, think positively, pray regularly, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much red meat, etc, you won’t even get sick.” This is of course not true. Doing some of these things will reduce your chances of getting sick, but nothing reduces your chances to zero.

But for whatever reason, we have a hard time thinking in degrees. We would rather think in terms of either/or: if you did all the right things and avoided all the wrong things, then it is 100% certain you will not get cancer. So if you did get cancer, then you did not do all the right things or did not avoid all the wrong things.

(But rejecting this either/or leads some of us to make a different mistake: “if doing all the right things and avoiding all the wrong things does not prevent cancer, then there’s no point in even trying.” When you try to avoid thinking that everything is black or white, do not thereby think that everything is the same shade of gray. It’s still a good idea not to smoke.)

We know intellectually that there’s nothing that can prevent us from having cancer with a 100% degree certainty. But I suspect that you don’t really believe this. That is why I feel the pressure to tell you that I did not smoke, that I did not drink, I meditated regularly, exercised regularly, gave to charity occasionally, volunteered, etc. Not that I did all the right things. I probably ate too much meat. I probably should have given more to charity. I’m suspicious of positive thinking, and I never prayed. But those things I failed at are probably not what gave me cancer. It was a factor outside my control.

I want you to believe this, because I want you to believe that this disease is not my fault. I want you to have a good impression of who I am and who I was. But it is, I recognize, hard for you to believe that it’s not, at least in some small way, my fault. Because otherwise you would have to believe that there are factors outside your control that can affect your very existence.

In other words, if my being getting cancer was outside my control, it then means that whether you get cancer can also be outside your control – you too could be faced with a terminal illness. And vice versa, if you believe that this is something that only happens to others, then you don’t really believe that my getting cancer was a matter of chance.

I think in previous posts, I have said that I wanted everyone to believe that this can happen to them, just because it happened to me. I wanted you to believe that I am like you, because I wanted you to believe that I am sick through no fault of my own. But I didn’t realize what that means. It means that you have to be genuinely and deeply aware of the capriciousness of your own life. And that can be debilitating – anxiety-provoking. (Spouses, family members, and close friends of the terminally ill are known to suffer from death-related anxiety more acutely than friends of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.) Facing not just the fact of your death but the fact that it might be out of your control can make living even harder than it already is.

And I don’t really want your life to be harder than it already is. So it’s okay to pretend that you’re exempt from all this. And it’s okay with me if you want to think it’s my fault I’m sick. Just keep it to yourself.

Being a philosopher

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

The physics department at a university has just asked for more funding in order to pay for larger labs, more equipment, and more computers. The dean is aghast at the costs in the budget and replies, “Why can’t you be more like the mathematics department? All they need is pens, paper, and waste baskets! Or better yet, the philosophy department. All they need is pens and paper.”

This joke used to bother me, because it makes fun of philosophy, and I’m a philosopher. I would say, “I’ve thrown tons of things into the waste basket!”

One of the difficulties about calling yourself a philosopher, or calling yourself anything, is that by doing so, you bind yourself to what being a philosopher entails. In one of his essays, Paul Graham writes that we should try to keep our identities small, because when something becomes part of our identity, we stop having useful conversations about it. He points to religion and politics as examples. Religious and political affiliations often form core aspects of our identities, but religion and politics are the areas of discussion where we have our most violent and unproductive disagreements.

Paul Graham points to a possible exception in a footnote: that of calling oneself a scientist. A scientist isn’t committed necessarily to any particular theory, like Darwinism, in the same way that a creationist would be committed to their theory. A scientist is committed more to a methodology, to follow where the evidence leads. Since a scientist is committed to evidence more than to their privately held theories, they will be open to evidence to the contrary.

In this respect, thinking of yourself as a philosopher may even be better than thinking of yourself as a scientist, because there’s actually much less agreement among philosophers on standard philosophical questions than there is among scientists on standard scientific questions. There was a survey among professional philosophers done in 2009, and the claim that received the greatest agreement was the one stating that there is an external world. That agreement was only about 82%.

That is a remarkably low consensus. Just compare this to the fact that 97% of climate change scientists believe that humans are causing global warming. In other words, philosophers are, on the whole, much less confident that there is a real world than climate change scientists are that humans are causing global warming.

So it seems that calling yourself a philosopher doesn’t tie you to any particular belief, and unlike scientists, it is less clear that you’re even tied to any particular methodology. Forget the fact that there is huge divide between analytic and continental philosophers. Even among analytic philosophers, there is only about a 51% consensus on what even counts as logical (classical or not?), which is the closest thing to a clear standard we use to assess the validity of arguments – and note that this is just to check validity, not soundness.

But what this leads to is the problem that it seems that philosophers can say anything they want, because there is so little agreement among us. We need to find ways to constrain our thinking.

One bad way to constrain your thinking is to add to your identity. Instead of thinking of yourself just as a philosopher, you could identify as a consequentialist, a physicalist, a Kantian about ethics, a Humean about causality, a reasons internalist, etc. What is best for your professional life is probably to come up with an unusual theory, find arguments in favour of it that are not obviously invalid, publish those papers, and attach that theory to your identity. Second best is probably to find new arguments for an unpopular theory, and try to become known as the reviver of that theory. Third best is probably to become a defender of some well-tread philosophical theory or philosopher by investing your time in the scholarly work related to it or him (it’s usually a “him”).

Doing this may help you find employment, and it will probably help you get rid of the feeling that you’re just freewheeling philosophizing. It is however totally unhelpful in finding the truth. For it to be helpful at all, we have to know which theories are true before we add them to our conceptions of ourselves. Constraining ourselves is only useful if the constraints help us get at the truth. Computer scientists have clear constraints on their work. If their program doesn’t output anything or outputs error messages, their code is wrong. If something happens that they don’t expect, their code is wrong. Sometimes the output is close to what they expect but is actually wrong, so they don’t know that there’s a mistake right away. But most of the time, computer scientists can tell right away. Mathematicians have a harder time. The pieces of paper on which they write their proofs do not provide automatic feedback about whether those are good proofs or not. So they have to check and re-check, and they give their proofs to peers to check.

But philosophers have a really hard time. We can look over our arguments over and over again the way that a mathematician would over their proofs. (Which we rarely do, and rarely to the same level of rigour.) We can give our work to our peers, but the best our peers can really do is show that one of our arguments is invalid. But what is the reaction that most of us philosophers have when such a problem is found? The answer should be “Thanks for the help. I’ll try again.” But that’s not the common reaction in the circles I’ve been in.

Here, on this website, I’ve been writing about what I’ve been going through, trying to figure out what it means to face death and cancer, trying to figure out how to live. And a lot of it is probably mistaken. I wonder if nobody’s objecting to what I’ve been saying, because it simply seems too rude to criticize what a terminally-ill man is thinking.

I’m not really asking for objections or criticisms. I just don’t know if I’m getting this stuff about life and death right at all.

On thinking about death

When I think about dying, which is all the time now, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think about all this before. And wondering about why I didn’t think about all this before is only one tiny step away from wondering why everyone else isn’t thinking about it now.

Scott Alexander once pointed out that one of the scariest things about utilitarianism is how intuitive and sensible it seems until you actually look at the real world. If you confine your world to your friends, family and neighbours, you might be willing to incur small loses for the greater benefits of others. But when you think about what the world is really like, and not just what’s within your normal world, it becomes very demanding and scary.

He offers the following fable:

Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.

Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The Pit Gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.

Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.

So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.

But the thing about the world – the real world, the world we have now – is that there are actual things that are very much like bottomless pits of endless suffering. They comprise the developing world, the poor, the mentally disabled, the elderly in nursing homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, most hospitals, those dying in war-torn countries, and those ravaged by disease.

And while utilitarianism would be relatively easy if there were no bottomless pits of suffering, it’s damn hard in reality where these pits exist. And we can’t just cover these pits with tarps. First, these pits are not literal holes in the ground and they don’t make tarps big enough anyway. And moreover, we have a hard time being so deliberately callous. But what we do is not much better.

I don’t know what you do when you are asked to think about all the suffering in the world. But here’s what I do: I think about it for a bit, then say, “It’s a complicated problem, and there’s not much I can do about it.” But I never put actual effort in finding out how complicated the problem is or ever try to do much about it. I just repeat the “it’s complicated” mantra to myself every time the issue comes up.

My own dying is just one of millions. My own suffering is not worse than those of millions’ others. What I’m going through is relatively easy to contemplate, but even I flinch when I think about it. Much easier before when I didn’t have to think about dying at all. Now I’ve got no choice. I have to think about it. I can only imagine how hard it is for my friends and family to try to deliberately think about dying. That may come off as snarky, but it’s also sincere. (Can you be both snarky and sincere at the same time?)

People struggle with living their ordinary lives, and ordinary lives are not easy, with mortgages, taking care of children, looking for a job or an apartment, or worrying about whether you’re going to keep your job, worrying about your relationship with your spouse — those are real problems that are really difficult. And then you have to think about the fact that this Ken Chung, your friend, brother, son, cousin or nephew, is actually dying from cancer? DYING for chrissake! Of course, I’d rather be in your shoes than mine, unless you’re also in one of those bottomless pits or in one worse than mine. But it’s still hard, because most of your life, even though it’s normal, is still really hard, and we can only handle so many hard things at a time.

So here are some thoughts on how to relate to the dying, or at least to this dying person. If you can say something to me that is not cliché and sincere and kind, that’s amazing and incredible. Truly. But don’t ever feel guilty about saying something that is cliché to me. Even things like “You’re strong”, “You seem wise about all this”, “We have to enjoy the days we have” all mean a tremendous amount to me, even if I disagree and think I’m weak, unwise, and I have no idea how to enjoy what life I have left. You should know that you cannot pull me out of the pit I am in — my disease is incurable.1 All I ask is that you not a put a tarp over me and forget about me.

But even if you did that, I can’t really fault you. After all, part of me wants desperately to reject utilitarianism just because it makes me think about things I’d rather not.

  1. Even if you wanted to try pull me out of this pit, you would have to go and study immunotherapy, gene therapy, and/or oncology, and somehow make multiple Nobel prize-worthy breakthroughs really fast. 

“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.

Commonplace books

Over the last nine years or so, I have been collecting words that meant something to me. They include words of wisdom, advice on reasoning, and anything else that I think is worth remembering.

Why do I do this?

A few years ago, I read Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath. They argued convincingly that using a pros-and-cons approach to making a decision is deeply flawed. I took this lesson to heart, and started using their recommended approach instead. This lasted for several days, maybe even a week or two, but a month later, I found myself going back to the old pros-and-cons approach. This is not because I discovered that Chip and Dan Heath were wrong. Rather I simply forgot what they had said.

Sometimes I’ll read a novel, and I’ll start seeing people differently, more sympathetically, more humanely. But again, a month or two later, I’m back to my old ways—committing acts of prejudice, using familiar stereotypes, essentially doing the same thing over and over again, etc. It’s as if I haven’t read anything at all.

Reading something once just isn’t enough for me. I forget stuff I’ve learned. And if I’m forgetting stuff I’ve learned, I’m failing to use good and helpful ideas. And if I’m failing to use good and helpful ideas, why learn about them in the first place?

So I write them down. I copy and paste. And I’ve started reviewing these “good ideas” every morning over coffee — in a ritualistic, almost religious sort of way. But I don’t treat these words as holy.

If you look at my notebooks of passages, you’ll find many things crossed out and questions written in the margins. For instance, I had copied passages mentioning how willpower is a limited resource and that one needs to be mindful about what you choose to do in a day. But a couple of years ago, it turned out that the research this idea was based on was part of a larger problem in the field of psychology. (See Vox’s “What psychology’s crisis means for the future of science.”)

So it may not have been true at all, and so I crossed it off in my notebook.

But the general point is that there’s wisdom out there, and I want to make it as much a part of my life as I can. My solution is to read good stuff, find words that seem true and helpful, copy them down, and then look at them regularly.

I once had links to PDFs of my commonplace books here, in the hope you would find what I had collected interesting. I’ve since removed them. If you would like, you can email me for them. But it’s probably a lot better to compile your own.