Today would have been the 40th birthday of a dear friend of mine. He would have beaten me to quadragenarian status by twelve days, and I so dearly wish he had.
Ryan Sciba died of cancer when he was 19 years old. He had been diagnosed at 17 when complaints of persistent numbness on one side sent him to the oncology department of Swedish Hospital. There they discovered the large tumor in his chest which was pressing against the nerves and arteries leading to his arm.
Although he had received annual chest X-rays as part of his physical exams when he was 15 and 16, the tumor went unnoticed each time. Once discovered and removed, it had differentiated into bone, hair and other cell types, and it had metastasized – riddling him with seeds of the disease that eluded the rounds of chemotherapy.
It’s common at times of trial for friends and family to offer words of solace, and one of the most common platitudes is that “everything happens for a reason,” or that “it’s all part of a greater plan.”
These people mean the best. They’re sad and want to make us feel better, but this hope for a greater purpose is not just a platitude – it blames the victim for their circumstance, hiding the agency behind an unknowable greater being.
If “happens for a reason” referred to determinism or the predictable causality of a system, given a certain set of inputs and rules of behavior, then I’d be willing to accept the statement.
But this isn’t their point. Instead I’m asked to accept the agency of an unseen force or being with a more expansive plan than I can conceive, and that the death of my friend was beneficial to the success of this greater plan. Perhaps my own well-being is dependent upon this sacrifice.
If there truly is purpose behind all actions, then unjust suffering isn’t unjust after all, but retribution or sacrifice demanded by a universe that to all appearances acts in arbitrarily cruel ways. We are told we simply can’t understand the mind of god and that he knows what is best for us and those we love. To accept a purpose in the suffering of innocents is to suppose this suffering to be necessary for some greater unseen good. The suffering of Jesus, we are told, was necessary to absolve mankind from original sin. If we still suffer, then it must be something we did.
An argument could be made for the necessity for one gazelle to die to feed a lion, because that’s the nature of the existence of both creatures. But to make the argument that a particular gazelle was somehow chosen by an outside agent, presumptively for reasons of morality, is going too far. It places blame upon a victim who may have been slower than the herd due to any number of factors beyond its ability to change – not some moral failing.
To say Ryan died for a reason is to say his death was a necessity, and I’m not willing to accept this.
There is an insidious cruelty in this belief. We are asked to submit to the will of an unseen agent whose actions seem arbitrary or vindictive but are simply (we are told) inscrutable. Left to wonder, blame falls upon ourselves. Was I penitent enough? Did I make the right sacrifices? Did he my friend die because he worked on the Sabbath? The doubt eats away at the survivor, leaving them hungry for answers and vulnerable to the predations of those who would exploit this weakness.
Ryan was a devout Christian, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with me on this point, as he did the night I said goodbye. And how I wish he was here to make that case. But his death was a confluence of random events, from a bit of errant DNA to an inattentive X-Ray technician. There’s no need to claim his death was necessary – because it wasn’t.
However, just as I’m unwilling to believe in the necessity of death, I’m also not willing to believe in the necessity of life. Each day is chance and none of us is guaranteed any number of days. If you woke up this morning then count yourself lucky – damned lucky. But there’s no reason your luck won’t run out tomorrow, so enjoy today with abandon.
Everything does indeed happen for a reason. Apples fall because of gravity. The sun rises because the Earth spins. Cancer metastasizes and differentiates because mitosis has gone awry. But it’s not part of some greater plan. The suffering of our loved ones is not necessary for the greater good. It’s just suffering.
Shit just happens sometimes, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can move on to enjoy this brief moment of sentience we call life. It’ll be over far too soon.
Happy Birthday, Ryan.