If I remembered nothing else about Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, I would remember the reason for that title. Sebold, who was raped at knifepoint while a college student at Syracuse University, was told by the police immediately afterward that she had been “lucky” not to have also been murdered.
Unlike Sebold, I have never been raped by a stranger on a dark city street, but I have been told repeatedly how lucky I am when it seems an odd concept to apply. It’s hard to argue with this statement, as, yes, things could almost always be worse. When one survives, when one has a loving family, when one lives without severe economic hardship, when one has decent health insurance, one is lucky indeed. So, yes, I am lucky.
Still, I find it peculiar that so many people are so eager to tell me that I’m lucky, or worse, that I am blessed. This came up again a few weeks ago when I was in an elevator going to see my podiatrist about the newly diagnosed arthritis in my foot. I ran into a woman that I had met through my work with the UCF Book Festival. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while, as last year I’d missed some meetings after my brain hemorrhage. When she asked about my absence, I filled her in. She looked me up and down and immediately noted that God must have been looking out for me and that I was blessed to have escaped unscathed. (A certain Christian version of “lucky” is “blessed,” though those folks might see a big difference since they believe in a huge difference between random luck and God’s beneficial intervention. To me, these two terms have substantially the same effect, which is to deny my inferior suffering.)
A couple of weeks later, I was diagnosed with another health problem, which the docs and I are still sorting out. This is potentially a very serious issue, and no doubt I’ll talk about it here once I know what is going on. At any rate, within two hours after I’d received the initial news about this new wrinkle in my medical saga, my phone rang and it was my endocrinologist’s nurse, to whom I had placed a call with a question a few days earlier. When I told her about my new diagnosis, she, too, immediately launched into a discourse on how lucky I was because what had befallen me hadn’t been more severe than it was. She went on to tell me how she had seen patients who’d had more severe versions of my problem and how “pathetic” they were.
On the whole, yes, I feel lucky. But in that moment, within two hours after I’d received news of a new, serious health problem, it seemed incredibly insensitive for her to launch on my luckiness. Didn’t she know that my chances of becoming one of those severely impaired patients had just doubled or quadrupled? I wanted to tell her to go out in the street and find someone with no major health problems at all. “Tell that person she’s lucky,” I thought.
A couple of days later I talked to one of my friends who a few years ago received a double mastectomy due to Stage IV breast cancer, and I asked her if people tell her that, too. Of course they do. She said that she’s even been told she was lucky to have a double mastectomy because she just doesn’t have to worry about that any more. Some fools, she told me, even tell her that her breast cancer should be the best thing that ever happened to her. We talked about the difference between believing that an illness is a blessing and believing that a person can take an illness experience and learn and go on with better insight. Some people don’t seem to understand the distinction. We both feel that it’s up to us to determine the meaning of our illness experiences, not up to strangers to assume a stock meaning such as “If you’re not dead or severely crippled, you are lucky.”
On the surface, of course, it’s not bad to be reminded that things could be worse. The other day I did that very thing when an acquaintance posted on Facebook the question, “Could this day get any worse?” It seemed to mostly be about things like her sports team losing, so I said, “Yes, yes, it could. But I hope it gets better.”
I hope it gets better. Even when someone has some small thing go wrong, they deserve our empathy or at least our sympathy, the latter being recognition of a feeling we might not share. I sometimes wonder why people are so stingy about such things. I’ve come to believe that it’s a very selfish defense mechanism, augmented by an oversimplified belief that being upbeat is always beneficial. I mean, I don’t care that my friend’s sports team is losing—really, really don’t care—but I can still give her a word of encouragement. And encouragement doesn’t deny reality. I’m not going to tell her that her sports team is blessed because they lost 21-14 rather than 21-0.
In fact, this lack of empathy borders on the narcissistic, and I feel as though it has become rampant in our society as the tenets of positive psychology get oversimplified and dumbed down. Because people are so filled with this idea that “positive” is helpful, they fail to even register what other people are feeling, much less to respond appropriately.
And there is a huge fear of being “sucked down,” being forced into negativity. These people who want me to feel lucky don’t want my sadness or concerns about my health to worry them. But one of the things that is often forgotten in the common sources of advice about overcoming negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and fear is that the biggest fear of all can sometimes be the fear of these emotions. What does it mean when what we have is an unhealthy fear of fear? If a drop of sadness threatens to flood us with sadness? If we are more anxious about anxiety than about its original source? We are hard-wired to have these negative emotions, and they are part of our survival mechanism. To constantly blunt them with platitudes is to live a stunted life.
I don’t mean that we should respond to every and all emotional demands. Some are inappropriate. Some we don’t have the means to deal with. But it is just as easy to say, “I don’t know what to say. Glad it’s not worse” or “Hang in there” or “I hope it gets better” than it is to tell someone else they are blessed.
I feel very lucky about many aspects of my life. But I sure as hell don’t feel lucky about my health these days. I am trying to get better at expressing my negative reaction to those who assume I feel only lucky. I did manage to tell my endocrinologist’s nurse that it wasn’t very helpful for me right now to hear about all those worse off than me. But she kept insisting that her message was one I should hear. In person I have to admit I would have been tempted to shove her across the room. Instead, I am trying to practice my words of explanation and wondering how close I have to get to “F*ck off” before I can make people like that get it. Whatever response I have to health news, it’s up to me to decide, not up to them to tell me how I should feel.