There Must Be a Reason, Right?
What do I mean when I say the root causes of risk are human weakness and the random universe? My father smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and died from lung cancer at 48. That’s an obvious case of cause and effect attributable to human weakness. But not every health problem can be linked to personal choice. Yesterday The Fabulous Wife lost a dear friend to colon cancer. Bad eating habits? Nope. The dear friend ate a Mediterranean diet, widely considered the healthiest in the world, because she was Mediterranean. She had no addictions, except perhaps to expressing herself through the fiber arts. She exercised. She was happily married and was raising a well-adjusted, talented teen. And she wasn’t much older than my father.
If you’re saying “there must have been some reason,” first, be warned you’re implying she was responsible for her illness, and second — well, maybe she was. Science is a learning process. There is much we still don’t know or understand about the disease.
But I’ve known too many clean-living people afflicted by cancer (and other maladies) to accept the personal responsibility theory of sickness without scientific proof. Far more likely the dear friend’s cancer had a random origin. It could have been a pollutant. It could have been a nasty bacterium. It could have been a stray gamma ray from a supernova exploding millions of years ago that hit her just so, altering a cell that then reproduced madly. We will never know the series of chemical, physical, and biological coincidences (to which we are all subject) that triggered her malignancy.
As Daniel Kahneman writes in one of my favorite recent books, Thinking, Fast and Slow, “We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and underestimate the role of chance.” To believe illness is a consequence of personal failure rather than fate is consistent with the American myth (very much a myth) of rugged individualists controlling their own destiny, and is taken to its logical extreme in mind-over-matter cults such as Christian Science.
It’s also a way of denying our own vulnerability, of comforting ourselves that this can’t happen to me: if someone smokes three packs of cigarettes a day and dies of lung cancer, it follows that if you don’t smoke you won’t die of lung cancer. Except a recent study found that about one in eight lung cancer patients are non-smokers. Limiting harmful exposures can definitely help; by not smoking (and eating an occasional vegetable) I’ve lived longer than my dad. But the idea that clean living guarantees a long, vigorous life is delusional — precisely because it ignores the role chance plays in every aspect of our existence, including health.
Attributing health catastrophes to a higher power such as karma or god’s will is better than patient-blaming because it admits to uncertainty. But it too assumes a reason for the misfortune — just one we can’t comprehend. The motive is the same: creating psychic distance from the dread stirred by a close, unexplainable tragedy.
Earlier in life I thought of spiritual enlightenment as something we gain. I’ve since realized we reach enlightenment by losing things: our material excesses for starters, but more important, our delusions. We like to think we’re in control, not only of our minds and bodies, but of the tiny universe of our everyday lives. The hard truth is we control none of these to a determinative degree, except, perhaps, at times, our minds — and often we use our minds to fool ourselves. Kahneman again: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” The senseless death of someone close can wake us up to our denial of randomness’s role in our lives. We should take that as the loved one’s final gift — and cherish it accordingly.
We mourn the loss of The Fabulous Wife’s dear friend and wish her family strength in the coming months.