A few days ago I picked up a book off the shelves of my parents’ office. The title of this bestseller from the eighties is When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The short sighted title was what attracted me to Harold Kushner’s book but the theology within it was what kept me interested. I knew what it was going to be about and I knew nearly every point presented would conflict with my view of the world. But to entertain my curiosity and desire to empathize, I quickly read through it. So why do bad things happen to good people? Because things happen to people, that is why.
What it presents is an attempt at an answer to a theistically unanswerable question. Because God does not respond to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, Kushner fills in his own answer. It is somewhat unfortunate that he does so instead of leaving the question open ended. Sometimes I appreciate it when people attempt to explain their faith but I also respect humility to say “I don’t know”. If there is an omnipotent god, then why in this world are there tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes that kill millions of innocent people? Some will say it is because we have sinned and deserved it. The Mike Huckabees of the world will say it is because we are less and less religious and God is an angry god. None of these answers are very satisfying and while many are willing to hypothesize, no credibly sane person is willing to argue that they know for sure.
What would the world look like without something supernatural running the show? It would look exactly how it looks now. All religions eventually have to abandon pieces of evidence to fit their picture. But what if we were to say that no evidence was planted in order to deliberately deceive us? It all lines up. Death happens because natural selection had no obligation to get rid of it. Pain happens to protect us. Sadness happens to help us communicate. Earthquakes happen because of plate tectonics. It’s amazing how abandonment of the simple idea of a puppeteer makes things much more comprehensible.
The answer to Kushner’s question becomes blatantly apparent when god is abandoned. Bad things don’t happen and there are no good people. This is not to say that there is no sadness or pain. Those are very real feelings that we will feel no matter what stance we have on theology. But good and bad are only terms that we apply to things. Things happen to people; it is no more complex than that.
Two days before I was going to head south on an adventure of a lifetime, I tore two ligaments in my right ankle. I had been waiting on a rain jacket to come in. All my gear was packed. The trip was planned perfectly and I was waiting on the call from the outfitter. Yesterday I looked at the rain jacket that seemingly had come in just two days too late. If this jacket had come earlier or my other jacket had not torn, I would be healthy and would have by now successfully finished hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Instead, because of this jacket, I am a cripple. I spent the last month on crutches in a boot. But also because of this jacket, I was at home when an email for an urgent job offer came in instead of being half a thousand miles away in the middle of the backcountry. Because of that jacket, I have an awesome job working at a pediatric urgent care practice. I know this is a minor example, weak of real suffering. But I only want it to illustrate that it is possible that something seemingly crippling could actually be a great opportunity. I may have missed out on a most epic adventure that would have exposed me to revelations. I also may have been mauled by a bear or frozen to death from the harsh winter storms. This job may turn out to be the worst experience of my life or it may help me discover that I want to enjoy the rest of my life working in pediatrics.
None of these things I can know. There is no way to tell. Because of that ignorance, there is also no reason to mourn. Good and bad are only labels we apply to actions and events. Death may always seem a horrible event but as a grand paradox in the eyes of the theists, heaven awaits. In that case, why would death not be the best experience ever and why are these people still here and not there? Why have all the theists not ventured onward to this amazing perfection? In my case, I understand that death allows for new life. I will return my energy to the earth to be recycled by more organisms. Death only sucks from a narrow perspective and from a theological perspective seems awesome.
Knowing that there are no universally defined “bad things”, the second half of the question already loses its credibility. But for clarification, I’ll elaborate. To my friends, I may be acknowledged as a “good person” but to many I would be described as a sinner. To me, my intentions are only good. But to others, they may be incapable of separating my desire to rid the world of dogma from devil inspiration. Even people who deliberately do things that they know are wrong are rarely without cause. Even Osama bin Laden thought he was acting for a higher power. Ted Bundy was looking for the thrill that society banned him from. Adam Lanza was looking for the attention he was never granted. On the flip side, Mother Teresa banned anesthetics for excruciating medical procedures for children believing that pain would bring them closer to god and she was given the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s all dependent on perspective.
Why do I want to debase two seemingly harmless adjectives? Because I don’t believe they are actually harmless. Without these assignments of bad and good, we can be free to see things in their true light. The reality is that things just happen. There is no bad weather. There are no unjust natural disasters. Things simply are. It is natural to be sad and in pain, I will not deny that. But to prolong the sadness by mourning the sadness itself is a waste of time and only stems from our limited perspective. So let that shit be.
4 thoughts on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Obviously you have never had a loved one die….you just missed out on a trip. Wow. I wish I could be so idiotic. Oh wait, I am because I am mourning the death of my husband.
Thanks so much for your perspective.
Jane, I imagine the pain from a spouse or a child dying is unbearable. You are right, I am incapable of imagining how it must be. I apologize if I have upset you. I was not calling you idiotic. I was not calling anyone idiotic. I am not challenging anyone to abandon sadness or pain. That sadness and pain are not what I believe is idiotic. But to believe that death of a loved one was innately bad or a punishment from a higher being inspired my frustration. To see things in this light of good and bad rather than as events of biology and human flaw is what I believe is wrong. Anyways, it is a brain storm to the reality that there is a measure of good and bad to everything-that it is all about perspective. Once again, I apologize if I have upset you and I do appreciate your response- I only intended for my words to help.
Perhaps I was too hasty in my retort; I apologize. But let me explain…Having my husband die suddenly the day after Christmas this past year and having a daughter die from a terminal illness 20 years ago did leave me wondering if I have a black cloud following me around, a curse placed on me or ‘just why am I being punished’ attitude. Which of course lead me to your posting. I am drowning with grief and not being a a person of any particular faith, I was looking for an answer which in my heart, I know I will not find. Not on the internet, not any where. But that did not stop me from looking.
I am not looking for sympathy or an apology. I shouldn’t have written. I do understand and appreciate what you are stating.
“I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”- Rainer Maria Rilke. I have experienced nowhere near the suffering and loss that you have and I won’t pretend to know what it is like. I am merely documenting the process of handling my own life. I have absolutely no idea if this video will help you but it helped me so I figure it is worth watching. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=e8P1Y1a7-L4