I first heard this story on This American Life. In short, Stephen J. Gould’s succinctly states what I think is the message of the short story below. Gould says:
“We pass through this life but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsley identified as lying within” (The Mismeasure of Man, pp. 60-61).
The implications for society are inspiring: it’s easy to judge, condemn, and hate when observing another through the lens subjectivity yet when faced with similar circumstances we may very well behave just like the person judged, condemned, or hated. Such was (and is) the case with women, Blacks, the poor, people with learning disabilities, people with mental illness, gays and lesbians, and many other minorities.
Limits are too often imposed from without and identified as lying within.
Here’s the story:
The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat by David Sedaris in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
The white rat had been sick for as long as he could remember. If it wasn’t a headache, it was an upset stomach, a sore throat, an eye infection. Pus seeped from his gums. His ears rang, and what little he ate went right through him. Now came the news that he had pancreatic cancer, which was actually something of a relief. “Finally I can die,” he moaned to his new roommate. She was a female, also white and had arrived only that morning.
The tank they shared was made of glass, its walls soiled here and there with bloody paw prints and flecks of vomit. “Well,” she sighed, wincing at the state of her new home, “I’m sorry to say it, but if you have a terminal illness it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”
“I beg your pardon?” said the white rat.
The female approached the water bottle, stuck her paws in the spigot, and began to wash them. “It’s nice to believe that these sicknesses just ‘befall’ us,” she said. “We blame them on our environment and insist that they could happen to anyone, but in truth we bring them on ourselves with hatefulness and negativity.”
The white rat coughed up some phlegm with bits of lung in it. “So this is my fault?”
“Oh, I think it’s been proven,” the female said. “You might not have realized how negative you were being—maybe you were passive aggressive. Maybe no one cared enough to point it out, but I have to call things like I see them. Just as everyone does to me, only in the opposite direction. ‘How cause you’re always so sunny?’ they ask, and ‘Doesn’t your mouth hurt from all that smiling?’ Some interpret it as over exuberance, but to me it’s a kind of vaccine—as long as I’m happy and I love everybody, I can’t get sick.”
“Never?” asked the white rat.
“Oh, I had a flu once, but it was completely my own fault. Someone I mistook for a friend took to criticizing me behind my back—saying things regarding my weight and so forth. I got wind of it, and for all of three minutes I wished her ill. I’m not talking death, just a little discomforting—cramping, mainly. I was just starting to visualize it when I sneezed, which was my body’s way of saying, ‘Whoa,’ you know, ‘that’s not cool.’ Then my nose stopped up and I came down with a fever.”
“And what about your supposed friend, the one who said cruel things behind your back? If you got a flu, what happened to her?” asked the white rat.
“Well, nothing yet,” the female said, “But sometimes the body bides its time.” Her pink eyes narrowed just slightly. “I can bet that when something does happen, though, it’ll be a lot worse than a flu. Diabetes, maybe.”
“You sound pretty hopeful,” the white rat observed.
The female scowled, then smiled so hard the corners of her touched her eyes. “Not at all. I wish her the best.”
The white rat slumped against the wall and put a hand to his forehead. “I can’t think of anybody I dislike. Then too, I’ve been alone since my last roommate died.”
“That’s another cause of cancer,” the female told him. “You need to get out, socialize. Storytelling is pivotal to our well-being, as are nonethnic jokes and riddles.” Food pellets dropped from a chute beside the water bottle, and she took a bite of one. “I heard somewhere that limericks can cure both heart disease and certain types of cancer. Can you beat that? Limericks!”
The white rat knitted his brow.
“They’re poems,” the female explained. “You know, like, ‘there once was a mouse da da da / who da da da da da da da.’”
“Oh, right,” said the rat, silently recalling one about a prostitute and a dead cat, he chuckled. “And what about haiku? Are they good for curing shorter diseases?”
“I know when I’m being mocked,” the female said, “but that’s okay. You’re sick and are going to die. I, meanwhile, am perfectly healthy with good teeth and a positive attitude toward life, so joke away if it makes you feel any better.”
She’d just cracked open that smile of hers when the mesh ceiling parted and a human hand appeared. At first it seemed to be made of wax, that’s how rigid and opaque it was, but as it neared and pinned her to the floor, the female smelled rubber and understood that it was encased in a glove. Then came a second hand, this one bearing a hypodermic needle, and as the tip sank into her stomach, releasing its mad punch of viruses, the white rat settle against the wood chips and thought.
Most limericks, it seemed to him, involved a place. “There was a young mole from Des Moines,” say, or “In Yorktown there once lived a ferret.” He didn’t know where he was, though. It was a lab, obviously, but the location was anyone’s guess. With this in mind, he came up with the following:
A she-rat I had as a roomie
said illness just strikes if you’re gloomy.
Since she was infected
with AIDS, I’ve detected
an outlook a lot less perfumy.
Funny, he thought, but it actually did make him feel better.