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Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a question which, time and again, each of us asks and hears asked, and just as surely, a question over which each of us stumbles in trying to answer.
The problem is, there is no single, correct answer to this question. The right answer depends upon who’s asking, and why. In a way, this question is like a Zen koan: the way we ask it, the way we address it, and the way we answer it, all tell us where we are in our awakening. In effect, this question takes our spiritual temperature. And yet, again like a koan, because of its extraordinary nature, our very wrestling with it can alter us. Perhaps, like many of the questions we come across along the spiritual path, this one is a sacred riddle, and the best we can say for it is, it’s an impossible question to answer, but an excellent question to ask.
To those for whom this question is, at this very moment, of pressing, practical concern, and not a theoretical matter, please remember that however pained, frightened, lonely, and abandoned you feel, you are not alone. Even if there appears to be no one else in your life, even if you see no one on your horizon, you are not alone. You are never alone. God knows who you are, God knows what’s going on in your life, and God knows what’s next. Your situation will heal, and you will be all right. It may take time, but you will be okay, because God is your Father, God is your Mother, and so it’s in your Genes. Therefore, however awful the appearances, you have nothing to fear. For now, take refuge in prayer, and lots of it. If you do not know how to pray, then cry. Your Mother, who cannot help but respond to tears, will hear you.
As for the rest of us who are lucky enough at the moment to be free to consider this question dispassionately, let us make the following observation: First, when bad things occur to people within our reach, our immediate obligation is not to speculate about the nature of happenstance, but rather to respond with courage, and to go to those people, hold them closely, and let them weep. Their bad thing, whatever it is, is our bad thing, too, and if we fail to learn that from their experience, then beware, for the Teacher will almost certainly grant us an opportunity to learn it on our own. Also, until a scar begins to form over their wound, we must not add to their misery by bleating about the hows and the whys of it. No one who believes he or she is bleeding to death wants to hear a speech.
With that said, let’s you and I take this opportunity to remind ourselves that, however distressing life may sometimes seem, nothing happens – nothing can ever happen – that is not ultimately in our best interest. Quite simply, that is the Nature of the Universe. To be sure, unhappy events almost never seem that way while they are occurring, and for some of us, they may never seem that way. But for most of us, if we can bring ourselves to look back quietly after the dust has settled, we discover that, while we would not want to live through it again, an event that may have frightened us so terribly has in fact improved us in some way. And the farther along the spiritual path we travel, the more evident – the more immediately evident – does that become to us. Thus, we come to recognize that just as we are seekers, so our lives are classrooms, and therefore, while the lessons may not always be fun, they will always be good for us. In a word, we learn to trust the Universe, whatever the appearances.
The untimely death of a loved one is undoubtedly a bad thing, perhaps the quintessential bad thing. But for those who subscribe to the theory of reincarnation, perhaps it’s not that simple. Thus, consider this scenario: You wake up one morning in heaven, and realize that in your life just completed, you were a cruelly insensitive person who responded coldly, even brutally, to others in torment. You recognize that, to restore balance, you must learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such pain, and so, to accomplish that lesson, you choose to suffer the loss of a loved one in your own next life. Wandering the gilded streets, you come across a fellow soul who informs you she too has a lesson left to learn, which, as luck would have it, happens to be what it is like to die in childhood. The two of you strike a divine covenant. Leaping back into time, you assume a personality and walk the earth again, where you give birth to a child who dies tragically in your arms of an incurable illness. Heartbroken, you are plunged into despair, suffering pain as you have never before experienced it. And thereby, thanks to you, your friend learns the lesson she needed to learn, and thanks to her, you are in the process of learning the lesson you needed to learn. Meanwhile, observing this tragic event, your new friends and family perceive that a very bad thing has happened to you, and they react accordingly. As for you, on the surface you are desperate and distraught, and so you need and welcome their consolation. But somewhere deeper, you are calmly aware, for there you know what is going on and why. The question is, How to get to that calm place?
Let’s say we know a man who works around-the-clock, six, sometimes even seven, days a week, rarely sees his wife and children, eats mostly fast food, and that quickly, and when he relaxes, he does so running, until finally, he suffers a near fatal heart attack. That, clearly, is a bad thing. But which part is the bad thing, the heart failure or the lifestyle?
Suppose further that his doctor tells him his body will never withstand another such episode, so he has got to change everything about his life. Scared straight, the fellow reintroduces himself to his family, quits his job, and together they move to the woods, where they enjoy a long, shared life. Obviously, a good thing. But if that is a good thing, isn’t whatever led to it also a good thing? That is, would this fellow have resurrected his life if his heart had not failed? So, can we say the heart failure, and perhaps even the insane lifestyle, were a bad thing only until we saw what came out of them, and then they became a good thing? And yet, if that is the case, how long do we wait to decide? A year? Ten years? A lifetime? In which case, what is the point of having an opinion if we have to wait indefinitely to deliver it?
Now, just for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose that, instead of going to the woods, our friend chooses to ignore his doctor’s advice, not to mention his wife’s tearful pleas, and resumes his old pattern; and a few months later, he drops dead at his desk. Would we then say the first heart failure was a good thing, because it was a warning, but the second one was a bad thing, because it killed him? Or would we say, the first heart failure was a bad thing, because at that point he did not know any better, but the second one was a good thing, because it served him right for disobeying his doctor, disappointing his wife, and abandoning common sense?
But even if we conclude it was a good thing for him, surely it was a bad thing for his wife, because now she is left alone. But if that is the case, does it mean that one person’s good thing can be another person’s bad thing? And, if so, does that mean that the difference between a good thing and a bad thing is purely subjective? According to whom?
Finally, let’s suppose that after the emotional scar begins to form, and she starts to heal, this man’s widow realizes and acknowledges that her husband’s lifestyle was in part her lifestyle, too, if only by acquiescence, and so, in a way, they brought the bad thing on each other. So, while she knows she will miss her husband every day until she breathes her last breath, she stands up for herself for the first time in her life, pulls herself together, takes assertiveness training, and grows into a stronger, wiser, more mature, and generally better person. Thus, we might say, she crafts a good thing out of a bad thing, even if we might wish it had not needed to be at her husband’s expense. And yet, come to that, who knows whether, if she had tried to make these much needed improvements on herself while he was still living, her husband might not have felt threatened by the impending change, reacted poorly, and forced her to back away from growth.
Put into those terms, the question now becomes, Which is the more bad thing: To have this hypothetical woman’s husband die that she may become a widow, but as a result a new woman, or have him live that she may spend the rest of her life with him, but as a mouseburger? And if that is the question, who among us dares to answer it?
The Buddha taught that suffering is an aspect of all life on earth, and that the only way to escape it is to eliminate its cause, which is desire. Accordingly, he prescribed a mode of life designed to achieve that end. Other Teachers have done, and continue to do, likewise. What they all come down to is learning to live rightly, which means learning to discipline the mind, which means controlling our thoughts. All of our actions, and all of our reactions to all of the events in our lives, take place first in our minds. It is there that, consciously or unconsciously, we decide whether or not we like what is going on, and we make that decision on the basis of our value system, which means, on what (and how) we think. So long as the mind is permitted to think about whatever it wants in whatever terms it wants, for as long as it wants, we will remain at its mercy; and sooner or later, we will suffer, because sooner or later the mind will come upon something it doesn’t like, and we will pay the price.
Thus, part of the reason the Teachers remain unperturbed in the face of the very events that drive us through the roof is that their mind works for them, and not the other way around. That is, in those situations where our minds race every which way, generating one distressing thought after another, denying us a moment’s peace or a night’s sleep, wreaking havoc on our digestive process, and whittling away at our immune system, theirs sits quietly. Their mind is a servant; our minds are masters. Our minds are always thinking about something; never silent. Their mind is instructed to think when it’s appropriate; otherwise, to keep still.
This is true because the Teachers know who they are; they have Realized their True Nature. That’s what a Teacher is. And so, finally, no consideration of this question about bad things is complete without asking ourselves, Who’s asking it? Who do we think is speaking when we ask ourselves, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Our answer to that question has the power, on the one hand, to lock us into having to ask it over and over again, and on the other, to liberate us from it forever. For, once again, the indisputable fact is, if we believe ourselves to be a personality locked into a mortal body grasping for survival alongside billions of other personalities locked in similar mortal bodies, all of us buffeted hither and yon by forces beyond our control, then, no matter how high our walls or how deep our moats or how powerful our vaccines, there are always going to be bad things in store for us.
So, in the end, perhaps it is not that bad things happen to good people. Rather, it is that things happen. Period. And whether or not we perceive them as good or bad is determined not by what they are, but by who we think we are. Apples rot, roofs leak, pets die, spouses sicken, children wander, the stock market fluctuates, and hearts fail. At some point, every mortal, regardless of how good he or she may be, will encounter one or another of those eventualities. Therefore, you and I must decide, each for himself or herself, whether to remain in our current, tenuous position, dreadfully awaiting our turn, or to seize the opportunity resident in every moment, but perhaps especially in the agony of an unhappy moment, to reach skyward for the Truth of our Nature, to seek to remember Who We Are, and thereby to live free. The instant we make that choice, the Teacher will respond.