The Cosmic “Why Me?”
If you or someone you love ever suffered, you probably asked why. “Why me” is a constant echo in history and the human psyche – and it doesn’t matter whether the echo is spoken aloud or asked silently within. The human heart wants to know why, even if the mind knows that there’s no knowing why.
The “Why me” question (and how we feel asking it) reveals much about us – and gifts us a springboard for meaning and resilience if we pay close attention.
In this week’s Torah portion (Toldot), Jacob’s wife, a pregnant Rebecca carrying twins, feels wrestling in her womb. She famously asks Lamah zeh anochi – “Why is this me?” (Gen. 25:22) – not just “Why is this happening,” or even “Why is this happening to me,” but “Why is this me?” In despair, Rebecca conflated happening with identity, plot with character, occurrence with essence, body with soul.
We do this often. The “Why me” impulse arises from an inner sense of unfairness so poignant that its suffering consumes our identity. Daring to ask “Why me” is a defiant act of resistance that reclaims the truth that we’re more than our suffering.
We also are more than the stories we tell about suffering, which often make it worse. To Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Rebecca’s question lamented that she’d longed to become pregnant – as if blaming herself. To the Sforno, her question recalled that others wanted her to become pregnant – as if blaming them. To Ramban and the Radak, her question was aware that her pregnancy was unusual relative to other women – as if jealously comparing herself to others.
Amidst suffering, often we blame ourselves (for our predicament or how we bear it), or blame others (for causing it or not helping enough), or compare ourselves to others (and feel worse doing so). The “Why me” question so potently demands an answer that it can conjure its own answers – even answers that are false. Along the way, often our manufactured narratives make suffering worse.
Instead, what if the “Why me” question rivets our focus on just this truth – that the subtle stories we tell about suffering often are false? When we hear ourselves ask “Why me,” what if the question cues us to pay close attention to our inside stories of blame and comparison? This path “de-laminates” experience from narrative that only make matters worse, with a mindfulness that Jay Michaelson likens to the difference between “I am sad” (identity) and “This is sadness” (event). By mindfully paying attention when we ask the “Why me” question, we can see our narratives of mental momentum for what they are – and that’s how they lose their power to hurt us and our loved ones.
Asking “Why me” is human and healthy. What we do after this timeless question can make the difference between despair and resilience, anger and peacefulness, hurt and hope.
Originally published at The Jewish Studio.