First, I feel it’s important to say that I am not, in fact, a heartless monster who hates the world and wants to tear down religion. That is not who I am or what I’m here to do. I am here to explain, from one point of view, how atheists who live with chronic illness might view the world and deal with living in it.
Even though I respect religious people and everyone’s right to believe what they will, I’m not religious and don’t have to be in order to have hope, joy and courage, even while living with chronic illness. I’m here to continue that conversation.
When we first become ill, or shortly after being diagnosed, a lot of people with chronic illnesses can start to ask themselves this all-encompassing question: Why, oh why, out of all the people in the world, did it have to be me?
But that’s understandable. It feels personal when your life is torn out from under you. When the world becomes small, dark and painful, it’s hard to find things to be grateful for and easy to wish for another universe where you get better tomorrow or never become sick in the first place.
“Why did it have to be me?”
I see a lot of people asking this question online in regard to their health; it feels like they’re grieving a former life for a moment before picking back up and continuing forward. It’s something we all do and often need in order to stay emotionally healthy through all of this.
Even though I certainly grieve and have times when I wish with all my heart I had never gotten sick, I don’t find myself asking this particular question: Why me? And, honestly, I think it’s because I’m an atheist.
As an atheist, I don’t believe in a god, gods and omnipotent beings. I don’t think there is some cosmic wisdom in the universe keeping us all safe and cared for. I think we’re all just people, living our lives. We do our best to get along and have joy, love and hope in our lives. We work together to make the world and ourselves better as we learn and understand more about each other and the world we live in every day. The more we understand something or someone, the less we fear them. That means more empathy, compassion and cooperation with each other, which is wonderful because if we’re all that we’ve got, then we had better take care of each other. This viewpoint is called humanism.
In a world where there are just people living their lives, it doesn’t make sense to blame anyone or anything for your illness, let alone ask why you were “chosen” instead of someone else. The universe wasn’t out to get you. I don’t believe there was a god trying to test your faith or teach you a lesson. The cosmos didn’t have an agenda that involved you becoming ill.
In this world view, it simply doesn’t make sense to wonder why it is that you, out of all the billions of other humans, have a chronic illness. There is nothing mystical that ties your chronic illness to other people. Genetics, environment and other natural factors can help explain the “Why did I become ill?” question, but the “Why me and not someone else?” question falls apart in the same way it would if you asked your parents why you got the genetic illness and not your next-door neighbor.
But, putting aside the idea that atheism may reveal some issues with this particular question, I think it’s more important to look at the question using my humanism — from a place of empathy.
The “Why me?” question is most often used to mean something more like: “I am grieving a former or possible life that I no longer get to live because of my chronic illness.” Perhaps it is better to say what we mean. That this is not the life we had planned to live and perhaps not the life we ever wanted to live. That we wish we could have more control and more choice in what our illnesses do to our lives. That we sometimes wish we could live another life free from this illness.
Even if none of this can happen, grieving is a natural part of dealing with a drastic life change, and it’s healthy to feel your feelings. I think it can be even more helpful when you understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. You don’t wish your illness on someone else; you just wish you had a better alternative.
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