I was listening to a dharma talk by Sylvia Boorstein a couple of weeks ago, and she was telling the story of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer; it was pancreatic cancer. And her friend was asking Sylvia’s advice about how to handle what she was going through.
Sylvia was reviewing the mindful approach of acceptance, even accepting things we don’t like. Sylvia suggested that if she had a hard time with acceptance, at least try not to be mad about the cancer. Then her friend replied, “Well, I am mad about it. I’m definitely feeling angry.”
“Well then,” Sylvia continued, “try not to be mad about being mad.” But her friend added, “Well, I am mad about being so angry. I don’t want to be angry, so I’m upset with myself for being so angry. I noticed myself thinking, ‘why me? Why is this happening to me?’ It doesn’t seem fair, and that’s why I’m angry.”
Sylvia encouraged her friend to keep stepping back and accepting whatever was there, not simply the cancer, the treatments, the nausea, the hair loss, etc., but also the reactions like her anger and her frustration with her anger.
On a subsequent call her friend said, “You know what? The other day as I was in one of my self-pitying ‘why me?’ riffs, when I suddenly thought, ‘why not me?’ Cancer happens to people. I’m a person. Cancer happens more to older people; I’m an older person. Why would I think that I should be one of the ones who gets off the hook? And, this thought of ‘why not me’ actually softened my resentment towards the cancer, and made me feel less angry about having my reactions about having cancer. It helped me to accept my humanity including this part of my humanity.”
I loved hearing this story. Acceptance is one of the most powerful tools we have in our mindful toolbox for reducing suffering and building peace. But, it’s hard. We are so conditioned to react aversely to something the ego deems as unpleasant or unwanted. Our minds are so good at creating the ideal of how the world should be, how others should behave, that it creates upset when the world doesn’t show up as we planned. And we have all heard that “why me?” in our own internal dialogues over things much less dire than pancreatic cancer.
Why not me? Yes, I’m human. Our humanity is a mix of pleasant and unpleasant. Of course, some challenging, unwanted experiences are sure to come my way. Why not me?
When I have tried practicing with “why not me” over the last couple of weeks, it quickly has softened my upset. It has also helped me shift my perspective from the ego that feels thrown off course by whatever ill wind happened to be blowing at the moment, to a place of appreciation that the painful circumstances that I am dealing with are so manageable compared to what many face. It puts me in a mindset of being able to handle the problem, rather than feeling victimized by it.
Think of something that has been bothering you this week, or trace back in your mind to a moment when the “why me?” dialogue showed up. Retrospectively apply “why not me?” Explore. Maybe you’ll find appreciation for some of the smaller difficulties you’re facing, recognizing that it’s not pancreatic cancer.