“Didn’t you get regular check-ups? Is it in your family? Do you smoke? You bottle up your feelings too much and now your body is expressing them for you. You should meditate. You’re not eating properly. Did you or your parents ever have dealings with the occult? There must be some secret, unconfessed sin in your life. Why don’t you pray for healing? Don’t you have enough faith? Why did God do this to you?”
Every one of these comments was addressed to me by a friend or acquaintance shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer. At first I tried to reply politely: No, it’s not in my family, I don’t smoke, the people I live will be the first to tell you that I am not one to shy from expressing her feelings… and so on. After a while, I quit replying at all because I was not sure that I could do so politely. “Who do you think you are,” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you realize that these questions accuse me of giving myself cancer? You’re blaming me for being ill! I know your questions and comments are your way of expressing interest and concern, but why is it that you suddenly feel utterly free to make the most personal comments and speculate about the most intimate details of my spiritual life?”
I soon came to a different understanding of these intrusive and often insulting questions and comments. They are not so much about me, as they are about the person who is addressing me. We human beings are accustomed to having a certain amount of control over lives. Psychologists tell us that helplessness is the most difficult and painful of emotions. If I can point to a behavioral, environmental or spiritual factor in my neighbor’s catastrophic illness, then I can be reassured that I can avoid that illness by controlling those aspects of my behavior, environment and spiritual life. But if this terrible thing “just happened” to my friend, why it might “just happen” to me. And that would be intolerable.
When I was a teenager I was awakened early one morning by a serious earthquake. It was the scariest thing I had ever experienced: I put my foot down on the floor and the floor wasn’t there. The noise came from everywhere and nowhere. Terror. Sheer, visceral terror. The following days saw the aftershocks. I wasn’t alone in being paralyzed by fright by them, each as strong as another earthquake. Some psychologist came on TV or radio, I don’t remember, and suggested a way to cope with aftershock fear.
Get angry, he said. Stamp your foot, yell, command the earth to stop shaking! Our fear is sub-rational, he explained, based on our powerlessness in the situation. By acting as though we have power over the earthquake, we somehow trick those sub-rational parts of ourselves into believing that we actually have the power. Aftershocks last several seconds and stop, but our sub-rational being doesn’t know that. Hey! I commanded the earth to stop shaking and it did! I’m not a powerless victim; I can take control.
A similar mechanism is at play, I believe, when people try to find the cause of my cancer in something I could have controlled but didn’t. I think much the same sub-rational motivation lies at the heart of a great deal of victim-blaming behavior. She shouldn’t have worn her skirt so short. He shouldn’t have been out walking that late. She should have had an alarm system installed. He should have paid more attention. It’s their own fault. It couldn’t happen to me. I’m in control. I’m safe.
Surely there must be a way to make ourselves feel safe without resorting to blaming others.