I've never thought much of the theory of relative misfortune. Long ago I rejected poems that said don't weep about your broken foot until you've talked to a man who has no legs. It seemed stupid to find comfort in the afflictions of others.
And I suppose I was expressing my disgust for the people who have told me, "Don't complain about the injustices you've faced in America; think how much better off you are than the blacks who are still in Africa."
But I've come to appreciate the relativity of adversity since I had my right leg amputated last August.
At the National Rehabilitation Hospital, I have met a man of 75 who lost both legs but is working uncomplainingly and successfully to walk again. He is evidence of the insidious cruelty of diabetes but also of the power of the human spirit.
I have met a football player who is paralyzed from the waist down because of a spinal cord injury, but who takes it matter-of-factly as a "risk of the game." And a woman of 85 years who concealed incredibly the fact that she is a double amputee as she boasted, "I walk everywhere I want to go, and I still do all my own cooking."
I am sure that each of these patients once asked, as I did, "Why me, oh Lord, why me?" Some, including two people injured horribly in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, ask whether there really is a Supreme Being watching over billions of people, assigning miserable misfortunes by some rhyme or reason.
One woman uttered an expression of faith that I first heard years ago: "God leads men into deep waters not to drown them, but to cleanse them."
I have been cleansed of a little ignorance about how the health-care debate impacts on millions of Americans. I have seen the incredible new medical procedures and the magic new drugs, without which many of us would be dead. And I have felt shame to learn that so much of modern medicine is priced beyond the reach of people who don't have enough insurance or personal resources.
When I paid $1,200 for a three-week supply of one drug, I understood the man who told me, "I just can't afford the medicine the doctor says I gotta have." Can we ever get beyond politics and make the best health care available to all Americans?
I also have gotten a new sense of appreciation for all the people -- young college grads, especially -- who are choosing as careers the nursing back to sustainable lives those of us who need serious help.
No, I have not found comfort in the presence of so many whose afflictions are greater than mine. But I've learned why there is no reason or place for self-pity.