At some time in our lives, if we are mildly introspective and equally as observant, the incessant obviousness of life’s modus operandi is unmasked: That life, in essence, operates not as a utopia would, but as a dystopia, wherein woe is inextricably conjoined to its antithesis-felicity. Following this observation, many of us may find ourselves pondering over that timeless question which feigns simplicity: Why do bad things happen to good people? A vast myriad of philosophers have attempted-with little more than modest triumph at best-to make sense of this seemingly cruel paradox. Whether you are one of those who contemplate the visitation of woe upon yourself, or upon the good people you know, is only half of the task; at some point, woe shall manifest itself in our lives and in those of our loved ones. The other half of the task, then, involves acceptance and coping with it.
People of faith and without faith alike find themselves habitually treading on common ground, and they wonder: Is nature inherently our own worst enemy? Is God deliberately targeting us with misfortune for having transgressed? In a word, no; but eminent men and women have speculated. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Nature is no sentimentalist,-does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.” Natural laws operate indiscriminately; history has provided endless examples of this, where both the bad and the good perish from disease, natural disasters, or by fang and claw. Not even the intensely pious and god-fearing are exempt from suffering; one only need consult the story of Job in the Bible-and other holy scriptures-to see this. The Prophet Job, a man who was “blameless and upright, who feared God, and turned away from evil,” suffered legendary misfortune, yet did not curse God, nor did he give in to his plight, but accepted it, saying: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” To say that God and/or Nature contrive, through duplicity, for the good people of this world to taste the suffering which should, as some perceive it, be reserved for the wicked, is positively absurd. What must be kept in mind is the fact that this is not Heaven, and that laws of nature do not discriminate-they simply act.
Menander, an ancient Grecian dramatist, gave prima facie advice on how to avoid woe: “If you want to live your whole life free from pain you must either become a god or else a corpse. Consider other men’s troubles and that will comfort you.” Also, consider the words of stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, ‘Give and take as you please,’ not out of defiance, but out of obedience and goodwill.” The sooner we accept our humble stations in life, and the sooner we realize that neither nature nor God owes us a life of pleasantries and unending bliss, we can conclude that it is not an applicable question of “why bad things happen to good people”, but a question of “what can I do to live the best amidst misfortune, and how can I assuage my fellows in times of their misfortune?” Misfortune, as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, is not “….exceptional; but misfortune, in general, is the rule.” By helping our fellow man, and by not giving in to woe, we can try breaking that rule.
In this dystopia, there is no possible way to traverse along without encountering an unpleasant incident; ironically, however, it is often those very incidences that shape us into exceptional human beings. Nietzsche’s perspicacious adage of “what does not kill us makes us stronger,” should be the byword of humanity and our heroic equanimity when it comes to enduring misfortune. Reflect on how many myriads of good people have suffered and have turned that suffering in on itself, only to rise above, changing themselves-or the societies they live in-into more benevolent mechanisms. Reflect on how many good people have perished in wars, subsequently gaining liberty, or bettering their fellows’ lives by extirpating oppression; reflect on the good people who have endured sickness; and though possibly succumbing, lent us their strength, their hope; and reflect on the good people in your life today, on their misfortunes, and how you, as a good person, may become a better one by assuaging their suffering. Remember that both good and bad people are equal prey, and woe does not differentiate.
My own personal experience with misfortune will hopefully illustrate the point I mentioned above, about how unfortunate incidences can shape us into better people; therefore misfortune, at times, will not always deserve the appellation “bad” but can merit that of “good.”
Close to a decade ago I suffered an injury that forever deprived me of the use of about eighty percent of my body; as a result, I am confined to a wheelchair. The caustic arrow of misfortune that struck me seemed like an exceedingly pitiless one-especially considering the fact that I was only twenty years old, strong, and capable of almost anything. Abruptly I became paralyzed from the middle of my chest down, the arrow of misfortune leaving me with the scar of incomplete quadriplegia. Questions to ask: Was I a good person before woe’s arrow struck me? Good enough. Am I a better person now? Absolutely. Whether it was divine intervention, or the desultory act of nature instigated by my actions, rapidly began to matter little. And as I lay in the hospital, the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe echoed within my mind: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” The tide did turn, and my dreadful situation turned into an auspicious new beginning.
Within most of us, there is a better person imprisoned behind the guise of a bad or indifferent one; moreover, for myself, “why a bad thing happened to a good person” was and is not applicable, because I’ve chosen it not to be applicable, simply by the recognition that what could be interpreted as bad was really a good thing disguised as a bad thing, and it changed my life for the better. By believing a misfortunate event in one’s life to be bad, and by agonizing over it unremittingly, we exacerbate the “badness” of it; we unwittingly inundate ourselves with negativity, thereby breeding fresh misfortune; we lament on how much of a good person we were, forgetting that we still can be; and finally, we wrongfully cast maledictions upon God, the world, or the people closest to us. If we accept the misfortune, if we accept the injury, and if we accept the pain-knowing that it will soon regress and dissipate-the quicker we can begin to heal and return to our life’s path.
Thoughts to keep in mind: The misfortune and woe that manifests within our lives will certainly vary in degree; not all of us who are brought low will ever rise up again. Undoubtedly some will perish, and fate-that unstable force impervious to all attempts to be controlled-will operate according to her own dictates, even as the tears of humankind wash over her like waves on a lonely sea...
Long ago, Sophocles said of fate: “Dreadful is the mysterious power of fate-there is no deliverance from it by wealth or by war, by towered city, or dark, sea-beaten ships.” Indeed, fate can be as odious as it can be charitable, analogous to time. The domineering trait ascribed to fate is its immutability. Should fate meddle in an adverse fashion against a magnanimous person (why bad things happen to good people), it may be denounced as a person’s bad luck-or as something opprobrious and unfair. But is it that simplistic? Human beings have a domineering trait of their own-imprudence. A hypothesis not heretofore mentioned is one in which good people are responsible for succumbing to adverse turns of fate based on their own imprudent actions and inactions. The vicissitudes of fortune, then, should not always come as a surprise-nor as something inexorable.
For a moment, let us suppose a person leads his or her life as the absolute paragon of goodness. He/she is charitable, pleasant, humble, and ethical when meeting out all endeavors; in a word, they are like a saint. Now presume they have an unhealthy diet, smoke profusely, and never exercise-all imprudent choices which carry foreseeable fates. Suddenly they find out at a young age that they are diagnosed with lung cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease; suppose that they soon die. Do we attribute these “bad” things (i.e., sickness and eventual death) as bad things happening to a good person? Should we not, instead, label it as mere folly? Their own choices led to them being struck by the arrow of misfortune, and in this example, fate could possibly have unfolded differently had their life choices been more innocuous. This is not to say we should castigate a person for their life choices. Instead, we should offer advice and encouragement which would lead them to obviate an adverse fate.
Indifference, or inaction, can be just as fatal. Charities, for instance, rely on the actions of empathetic people. Thus, if those people were to become wholly indifferent, and were to stop donating their money or time (inaction), how many more good-yet poor-people would suffer misfortune? By being proactive, as a whole, we can ameliorate the suffering of those whose circumstances are less fortunate, and even if it is a one percent reduction in the sum misery of the human race, it shall have been worth it. By contributions of food, medicine, or funds we can alter a worse fate into a better one: we can prevent the arrows of misfortune from striking, and in so doing, give others opportunity to a life in the midst of less woe. In doing nothing, we allow suffering to breed. Therefore, seemingly bad things will happen to good people-all the more so if we remain in moral stasis. A poem by Emily Dickinson inspires us to act:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
As avowed earlier in this essay, I attempted to convey why bad things happen to good people, not as a matter of choice by God, who is loving and merciful than any other attribute; nor by nature-in the guise of a nefarious collaborator specifically targeting us-but rather as a consequence of our own choices and the nature of the dystopian structure in which all life, past and present, exists. Misfortune can be overcome by the acceptance of it; thereafter, one can move on without losing stride. Furthermore, as a result of an episode of suffering, we may become better people, and perhaps after we overcome our suffering we can help others through their times of crisis-thereby lessening an adverse turn of fate.
Fate, then, is immutable only to the degree that we allow. By our actions, inactions, and life choices, we contribute to either the sum of misfortune, or to the subtraction of misfortune.
Nothing happens without a purpose, including woe. Yet woe seems to be a sightless archer. Still, if we keep our faith in God, and if we recognize that all anguish and suffering must-and will-come to an end, the arrows of misfortune can do us no harm.