When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 4, 2000
One day, a young woman named Kisa Gotami came to see the Buddha. Kisa had had a bad run of hard luck and tragedy in her life. First, her husband had died, and then another close family member, just a few weeks later. All she had left was her only son, a young boy of about nine. But then, tragically, he was stricken with disease as well, and he, too, grew sick and finally died. Wailing in grief, she carried the body of her dead child all around the village, asking for help, for some kind of medicine, to bring him back to life-- but, of course, no one could help her.
Finally, she heard about the Buddha, who was teaching in a nearby forest grove. So Kisa traveled into the forest, and approached the Buddha, and still crying with grief, she asked him, “Great teacher, master, please bring my boy back to life.”
The Buddha thought for a moment, and then replied, “First you must do something for me, Kisa Gotami. You must go back into the village and get me a handful of mustard seed, and from this I will fashion a medicine for your child. But there’s one more thing,” the Buddha then continued. “The mustard seed must come from a home which has never known sorrow.”
So, Kisa Gotami ran back into the village and up to the first house begging, “Please, please, may I have some mustard seed? I need just a handful of mustard seed.”
And the people, seeing her grief and wanting to help her, responded at once, “Mustard seed? Yes, certainly!” (for mustard seed was a very common spice in India).
But when Kisa asked, “Has anyone in this house known sorrow?” the answer was always the same: “Yes, we have...”
At the first house, they had lost a child, just the year before... At the next, the mother had died, two months previously... At the third, a brother... At the fourth, a son.... A daughter... A husband... A wife... And so on...
“Yes, we have known great sorrow,” they all told her-- from house to house, throughout the entire village. The story was always the same. She could not find a single household that had not known sorrow.
Finally, Kisa Gotami went back to the Buddha, still carrying the body of her dead son. But this time, he was buried with all the proper rites. She had learned to let go. After the burial ritual was completed, Kisa bowed before the Buddha, and asked this time for teachings that would bring her wisdom and comfort at this time of sadness. (And, it is said, she took the Buddha’s teachings deeply to heart and became a great yogi and wise woman, known for her ability to comfort others,)
When we build a bridge from our shared pain
linking soul to soul
and reaching out our hands to help each other,
we build a roadway so powerful and strong
that no division of age or class or color
can ever threaten to tear it down...
When we listen to the voice within our souls-- when we are true to our spiritual and religious callings-- then perhaps this is what we’ll be able to discern of why we’re here:
to help one another through the night;
to try to make sense of this existence;
to take the daily events of our lives and try to weave from them a pattern of meaning;
to rise at the dawn of each new day with a sense that it is somehow important that we are here.
But we all know what this life can do. It can rip us apart at times. It can tear away whatever fragile sense of meaning we might have found in all our wondering and searching. All of us have been-- or will be, sooner or later-- a part of what Albert Schweitzer called “the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain”. And it is a truly universal community, and while some lives certainly might have more tragedy piled upon them than others, none of us escapes completely unscathed. “None of us gets out of here alive,” Jim Morrison used to say. And none of us leaves this life without first experiencing pain, sorrow, suffering, sadness in our lives.
We like to tell ourselves that the universe is just; that the natural world is ordered; that creation intends our good; that everything is unfolding as it should be. Perhaps we need to tell ourselves these things, in order to be able to face this world without going crazy. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. Maybe we can’t bear too much of the cold, stark truth. Perhaps we need to make these affirmations of faith in order to survive psychologically.
But if there is a deeper reason-- a deeper meaning-- behind all of our existence, then when bad things, inevitably, happen-- Who is to blame? Who is at fault? Those are questions that nag at us, constantly...
Now, we know why one kind of bad things happen, of course. Their cause is no further away than the morning’s news:
A Soviet defector in Afghanistan told the following story:
“We were told not to take any prisoners of war. None. Generally, we killed them on the spot. As soon as we caught them, our officers ordered us to slaughter them.”
This was Afghanistan. It could have been Vietnam. Or Bosnia. Or Kosovo. Or Rwanda. Or El Salvador. Or the killing fields of Cambodia. Or the atomic agonies of Hiroshima. Or it could be Auschwitz, or Dachau, or Birkenwald.
A little closer to home: two noted Dartmouth professors are found brutally murdered in their home in rural New Hampshire. The chief suspects are two young boys from a small Vermont town, 16 and 17 years old, universally described by their friends and teachers and neighbors as “nice kids”, “real smart”, “wonderful boys”, “typical young people”.
There is no mystery at all about why many bad things happen. They happen because people-- and nations-- all too often choose to do bad things to other people. There’s no mystery there, certainly, just evil.
But what about those sufferings whose cause lies beyond the realm of mortal control? Why does the natural world inflict so much suffering upon human beings? What meaning can there possibly be in that?
Some people blame the Devil.
In the world according to the Gallup Poll, two-thirds of those surveyed say they believe that the Devil-- Satan-- exists as a real, living person, power, or spirit.
Now, if one does believe in Satan-- that is, if one believes in an incarnate power of evil, working behind the scenes, orchestrating and directing all these bad things that are happening-- then I suppose that the question of why pain and suffering exist is an easier one to answer: Whose fault is it? Why, it’s Satan’s fault, of course! Blame it on the Devil!
According to this view, the forces of Good-- of God-- are continually at war with the forces of Evil-- of Satan-- in a kind of Cosmic Super Bowl (or maybe it’s more of a Cosmic World Series-- best four out of seven, or something like that).
In this view, God’s world is free of pain and suffering, death and despair. But the Devil’s world (and because of “our” so-called Fall in the Garden of Eden that means this world, our world) is the place where evil can occur. The only way to avoid bad things-- or at least to transcend them-- is by accepting some particular idea of salivation, rejecting Satan and all of his works, and joining “God’s team” in the great cosmic battle that is always raging.
Now, needless to say, some of us have real problems with this perspective. For one thing, it tosses monotheism-- the idea of there being one God (or, as Unitarians would say, “at most, one God”) right out the window; it posits, if you will, a second “immortal, invisible” god (an evil one this time) at work in the depths of Creation. In this dualistic way of looking at things, there are, in fact, two gods battling it out for control of the universe-- and that’s (at least) one too many gods for most of us to take.
This viewpoint also turns the natural world over to Satan, which I have real problems with, too, and which flies in the face of the little song some of us used to sing, years ago, in Sunday school:
This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears,
All nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres...
And what about:
For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor of the skies,
For that love which from our birth, over and around us lies...
No, I’m sorry, but in my view, the natural world is, by and large, a wonder-filled, profound, soul-shaking blessing-- not a curse to us-- and Satan can’t have it!
Of course, there are other theological explanations for why pain and suffering happen.
There’s the doctrine of reincarnation, very superficially put: It’s the idea that if something bad happens to you, you’re being punished for something you did wrong in a former life.
I often wish I could believe in reincarnation. There’s a certain primal justice in it that appeals to me. Do something wrong, and sooner or later that karma accumulates and accumulates until it finally catches up with you and then-- bam!-- you get what you deserve.
I often wish I could believe in reincarnation-- but I can’t.
For one thing, no one is ever going to convince me that there is (say) poverty in the world because poor people “deserve to be poor” because of something they did in a former life... Or that someone gets cancer because God wants to teach him or her a “lesson”... Or that 14-year olds drown while fishing or 16-year olds are killed in car crashes because they did something wrong in a former life.
You see, the basic question for me resists all of these pat answers and neat theological packages that have been developed over the centuries. It goes deeper...
Fundamentally, as much as I might want to sometimes , I just can’t accept the theological idea that puts God behind all the bad things we experience. Looking out at all the pain and suffering in the world, I just can’t accept that there always is a deeper, divinely-inspired reason for our pain-- a divine, holy, silver lining of a reason which we mortal ones simply do not discern or comprehend.
I don’t believe that all our suffering is “God’s will” because I don’t believe in a God who is a tyrant. I don’t believe the Middle Eastern proverb which tells us, “If you see a blind man coming, kick him, for why should you be kinder than God?” No, the God I picture is infinitely kinder than we are. God is infinitely more loving-- but not necessarily in control of everything that happens.
I cannot conceive of a Creator-God who would will pain and misery upon His creation, any more than I can accept a Father-God who would send his only begotten son to suffer and die on a cross. Loving fathersdon’t will suffering and death upon anyone, much less their own children. The very idea that we should worship a God who would will-- and even rejoice in-- suffering is completely repulsive to me.
God is, to me, ultimately a mystery; God is so much more than the all categories of the natural world alone-- so much more that cannot be understood. But I believe that we shouldn’t expect less from God than that which our natural powers and reason and decency-- our own natural instincts-- affirm.
Instead of always having to have someone or something to “blame” when bad things happen-- ourselves, or other people, or the Devil, or our past lives, or even God-- there is, I think, a healthier, more empowering way of looking at life when bad things come our way.
We don’t need to “blame” anyone at all. Instead, we can acknowledge that Creation is wonderful, but that Creation is imperfect. We can accept as given the limitations of the natural order and our need to exist within certain natural laws. None of this takes away from affirming and celebrating the Gift of Life as a profound and immortal blessing.
A healthy, holistic religious faith can declare that, in these human lives we lead, joy and pain and intimately intermingled-- just like light and dark, heat and cold, life and death. We can affirm that there is so much we do not control-- but that we are nevertheless co-creators of this world, full of the power to heal-- or to hurt; full of the potential to do good-- or to do evil.
This we know: We are part of the creative, expansive, interdependent web of all Creation. And as human beings we have been especially blessed with our consciousness of this interdependence.
The real issue, to my way of thinking, is not so much why bad things happen, but ultimately: How shall we respond humanely both to the blessings and the pains of this life. As Bruce Southworth said, “To accept the reality of suffering does not mean that we need to be defeated by it.” Even when bad things happen to us (maybe especially when bad things happen) we need to be able to turn our spirits outward, embrace life, and go on living.
This world tears us apart sometimes. At times, this grim battlement of everydayness weighs heavily upon our spirits (especially in March, with snow still on the ground, and yet more threatening).
But we, too, can be like that young boy and that young girl, huddled together against the cold, on that London street, years ago.
We, too, can be like that badly burned boy in the hospital, who realized that he was still alive when he realized that others still cared about him.
We, too, can be:
like the bird, who
falling in his flight
on limbs too slight
feels it give way beneath him,
knowing he has wings
The love and warmth and hope we can give to one another can be enough: not enough to make our lives painless and easy; not enough to take away all of our sadness; but enough to get us through another day; enough to guide us through the hard night.