Of Odds and Gods

Three in our meeting community have been struck by tragedy: Sandy Mershon, John Ball, and Laura Murphy. Sandy died after a heroic five-year battle with breast cancer. John Ball was felled suddenly by a common microbe to which the vast majority of the population has effective antibodies. My life is fading away more gradually, as the effects of ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terminal, muscle-wasting illness—slowly, silently take their toll.

A common question is asked by victims of tragedy, their loved ones, and friends: Why me? Why him or her? How improbable!

Of Odds

Consider the following expert testimony:
Heads.
Heads.
Heads.
Eighty-five times in a row a coin toss comes up heads. So begins the award-winning play by Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Rosencrantz is very perturbed by this course of events. Guildenstern finds nothing amiss.

The late, entertaining, eminent physicist and Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, began a public lecture: "You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine." Rick, Casablanca.

So, indeed, why me? Why Sandy, John? Just how improbable?

The occurrence of ALS is estimated to be one in 10,000. I don’t have statistics for breast cancer. The microbe that did John in is fatal to only 1 percent of the many who carry it. Am I entitled to a note from 9,999 of you, thanking me for being the one with ALS, and not you? Should Sandy’s estate expect thanks from thousands, John’s from zillions for succumbing to their respective diseases on behalf of those who will never get them? I don’t think so.

What do we learn from our experts Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Professor Feynman, and Rick? We learn that "the odds" and probability don’t tell us much about individual cases. Of course we have numerous opportunities to appreciate the odds, long and short run, and to use them in decision making. Though enough of us on enough occasions act despite the odds to keep lotteries and casinos thriving.

Still, there are many things over which we have no control, regardless of the odds. Of ALS I might as well ask, why not me? Or, why me, to have had so many healthy years? To a certain extent we can make our luck. But for much of life the dice are cast without our knowledge, much less our say-so or personal spin. We can only hope, like Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, that luck will be a lady. And we know odds are that even a lady has bad hair days.

Of Gods

Currently, I am enjoying a taped reading of the Iliad, and I am reminded how those Olympian gods tampered with mortals willy-nilly. It is easy to imagine Apollo, Aphrodite, or Athena on a whim sentencing me, Sandy, and John to our doom.

In these modern times when many believe in a more conventional God, it is natural to ask two corollaries to the "why me" question: Is there a God, and why would an all-knowing, all-powerful God allow tragedy and disaster? The very existence of personal tragedy might shake one’s belief. But often, and in my case, catastrophe propels a search for a spiritual path.

Before ALS I was agnostic. That put me considerably closer to the spiritual than my late, devoutly atheistic father who taught my brother and me that the dispute in every holy war centered on who had the better imaginary friend. I wonder how he (and John Ball, though I often thought John did protest too much in his insistence he was an atheist) would have responded to G.K. Chesterton’s pronouncement that if there were no God there would be no atheists. To some extent, unless you follow that logic or take the Bible literally, to hold strong to a belief in God you must do so on faith. Which is, some would say, what it’s all about.

I would, of course, be very happy never to have heard of ALS. But in the almost five years since I was diagnosed I have had so many wonderful connections with so many wonderful people—old friends, new friends, acquaintances, strangers—numerous acts of kindness have been bestowed upon me and my family, a remarkable number of good things have happened. I have come to believe these connections and events, almost overwhelming in nature and number, cannot be random, but reflect a higher power. That belief has been reinforced by my attendance during this same period at Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting. Before ALS, I might have been justly accused of obsessive-compulsive talking and running disorders. In any event, it would have been difficult to determine which ran most—my mouth or my feet. My ALS-enforced slowdown of both—to a virtual standstill—has made it possible for me to attend to the Spirit, or Light I carry, and to recognize it in others (not all the time, mind you; I’m very much a novice). And the friendship, love, and support I’ve received from Friends have been invaluable. I find it amusing, and ironic, but overall a tremendous blessing that I was led to this meeting where I immediately found a spiritual home.

So, for myself, partly on evidence, partly on faith, I answer the first corollary—yes, there is God.

It would be easier to say no in order to avoid the next and almost impossible question: Why would a creator allow pain and suffering in the creation? This issue has been debated for eons, probably long before Job’s story was written. The 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Leibniz invented a word—theodicy—for his defense of God’s benevolence despite so much human misery. More recently, the learned and deeply religious author Reynolds Price—who suffered a painful and debilitating experience with cancer that left him in a wheelchair—tackled both questions: Is there a God, and does God care? He answered yes to both questions in his book Letter to a Man in the Fire.

I cannot pretend to add to the prodigious scholarship on this point. I have not found completely satisfying answers. I agree with Price and others that God is not a punisher of humankind in general or in particular, visiting retribution on those who have sinned. (Stephen King, who a few years ago had a harrowing brush with mortality, ends the Job story—tongue in cheek—with the completely destitute Job asking, "Why me?" And God’s thunderous response, "Job, you really pissed me off!") Beyond that, I conclude only that God is not a micromanager and our world simply is what it is. We are dealt various cards throughout our lives. Some cards are losers, some winners. We can play some based on calculated odds, but often we simply have the luck, good or bad, of the draw. Again it comes down to hoping luck will be a lady.

Lou Gehrig is famous for having been a spectacular ball player; for having his name, in this country, linked to ALS; and for saying to his fans, in the face of his ALS, "I’m the luckiest man alive." In the introduction to his book, A Brief History of Time, the British physicist Stephen Hawking remarks that except for having ALS, he has been very lucky.

I know John and Sandy had lives not without pain, but also full of luck and love. I consider myself one of the luckiest women alive. Lucky in love; lucky in having a near-perfect daughter, incomparable friends and family, and a truly wonderful life.

I’ll still take all the help I can from odds ‘n gods.