When bad things happen, as they always do, someone inevitably asks:
Why do bad things happen to good people?
It sounds like a reasonable question. And we all ask it (I do too), even if we don’t do it aloud, or in those exact words.
It’s natural for humans to ask “Why.”
Sometimes, people who ask this question are deceiving their listeners and themselves. When they ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” they are actually asking another question, one they may not be aware of.
And asking this question — especially in times of suffering — may actually hurt the asker, and others.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
This ubiquitous question is based on two assumptions:
Assumption 1: Good people exist
DO good people exist? If so, who gets to define “good”?
Many people base their definition of “good” on how they feel.
When something feels nice, we call that good. If something feels unpleasant, we call that bad.
But one need only to look into history and politics to see how quickly and drastically people’s definitions of “good” change, or how widely the definition can vary from region to region and group to group.
Without an objective standard for goodness, everyone would have their own definition of good, meaning that both the word “good” and the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” makes no sense whatsoever.
Even if we went with a subjective definition of good, and applied it to ourselves only, we still can’t say anyone is truly good. Because we all do things that we ourselves would not call “good.”
So at best, there are only occasionally, subjectively good people, but there are no perfect, objectively good people*.
Assumption 2: Bad things should not happen to good people
We often ask “why,” but we rarely ask: why not?
Why should not bad things happen to good people?
Who has the right to say that good people deserve a pass in life while everyone else suffers?
Certainly not us — we’ve already established that no one is perfectly good, including ourselves. So what right do we have to judge who is or isn’t good, and what should or should not happen to them?
Furthermore, even if we had the moral right to hand out rewards and punishments based on our judgments, we don’t have the ability to do so.
We aren’t omnipotent. We don’t control weather, society, or even our own lives. We may be able to influence many things, but there are some things (accidents, acts of nature, other people’s choices) that we just can’t control or prevent.
It seems intrinsically unfair to us that bad things happen to good people.
But since we cannot by ourselves define “good,” nor determine whether or not a person is good (none of us are mind readers, and we misunderstand each others’ behavior and motives too readily), nor dole out consequences to people as we wish, there isn’t much point in asking why bad things happen — to good OR bad people.
But never mind all that for now.
All this philosophical mumbo-jumbo isn’t important. Because the truth is, when we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” we’re actually asking something else:
What we’re really asking
If we’re honest, no one really cares about the answer to the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” in the generic sense.
What we all really want to know is: “Why did THIS PARTICULAR bad thing happen to ME (or someone close to me)?”
Even if nothing bad has happened to us, and we are simply talking about some tragedy we watched on TV, our bigger concern usually is not the poor folks suffering on screen, but the insecurity we feel.
If such a thing could happen to them, it could happen to me.
(It’s just that asking: “why do bad things happen to good people?” instead of “why do bad things happen to me?” makes us sound a little less self-centered than we really are)
So when bad things happen to us, and we ask “why did this happen to me?” (whether out loud or just in our heads) there are two assumptions driving this question:
- I am a good person, undeserving of bad things
- This should not have happened to me.
…you know where I am going with this, don’t you? I’ll keep it brief:
- Who are you to say you are a good person? By whose standard are you measuring yourself, and how do you know that standard is true?
- Even if you were a good person, why shouldn’t bad things happen to you? All kinds of bad things happen to all kinds of people, sometimes without apparent rhyme or reason. So if you can ask “why,” then the opposite question “why not” is equally legitimate.
Why We Should Stop Asking Why
The bummer is, even if you were a good person (by the most objective standards), and you had the right to decide that bad things should neverhappen to good people, you still don’t have the power to make that happen.
Asking “why” can potentially hurt you, and others.
There once was a guy named Job who was a good and generous man, but lots of bad things happened to him — he lost his fortune, his children, and his health.
No one knew why this had happened to him.
But they wanted to.
When Job’s friends came to visit, instead of comforting him, they started hypothesizing about the cause of Job’s problems. They thought it must be because Job had done something bad (even though they had no evidence).
They were wrong. Job hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, no one ever found out exactly why Job suffered.
By asking a question they could not answer, Job’s friends only made Job’s suffering worse.
Look. We live in a broken world. People suffer. Sometimes there is a reason we can understand, sometimes there isn’t. Why this bullet? Why this soldier? Why this disease? Why now?
When you do not know for sure — and CANNOT know for sure — why something bad happens, yet persist in asking, you may find yourself grabbing onto any reason that makes a modicum of sense to you, which may or may not actually be true.
And if you latch on to a reason that isn’t true, you may just end up torturing yourself and others unnecessarily, just like Job’s friends.
When You SHOULD Ask Why
I’m not saying we should NEVER ask “why” something happened.
Asking “why” in the practical sense CAN be helpful. All the science fields (physics, medicine, etc.) hinge on the scientific method, which is driven by the question “why.”
For example, if you ask the question: “why did I suffer diarrhea after eating street food?” and find out that the answer is “the food was unsanitary and I had food poisoning,” then you learn that you’ll need to be careful with your eating habits going forward.
But when there are no clear, cause-and-effect reasons for a certain thing happening — whether it is an unexpected diagnosis, a sudden death, a mental illness, a natural disaster, a tragedy — asking the philosophical “why’s” don’t help.
What we should ask instead
Though we are often tempted to, we shouldn’t spend too much time asking “why do bad things happen to good people?” or even “why did THIS bad thing happen to ME?”
Neither is helpful.
A better question to ask is: “What now?”
So, this bad thing has happened to me. And it sucks.
So now what? Am I going to ask “why” until I drive myself crazy? Am I going to blame someone? Am I going to search for a solution to my problem if there is one, or bear it patiently if there isn’t one (yet)?
Or: this bad thing happened to someone else. And it sucks.
So now what? What am I going to do about it? Am I going to ignore their need for help, and keep living my own life? Or am I going to do something about it?
There are better questions to ask than “why.”
If you’re the one to whom the bad thing is happening, the better question to ask is, “how am I going to respond to this?”
If you’re watching the bad thing happen to someone else, the better question to ask is, “how can I help?”
We May Never Know Why
There are some things we don’t know. Perhaps there are some things we areincapable of knowing. Or incapable of understanding at this moment. In either case, relax.
Driving ourselves crazy (literally) over these questions won’t help anyone.
Of course, we’re probably always going to ask WHY? whenever bad things happen. The need to know is too strong.
These philosophical “why” questions are the things that drive stories: novels, musicals, movies, and more.
So, go ahead and ask the philosophical why, if you must.
Just don’t do it for too long (or when you’re in a bad mood).
Also, be careful how you answer that question. The answer you come up with will change your life — the way you see it and the way you live it.
We Will Always Wonder Why
But when you’ve asked, and haven’t received an answer — or haven’t received an answer you like, remember that sometimes we must learn to accept that we aren’t omniscient, and that’s actually a good thing.
Can you imagine how exhausting and torturous it would be to know everything, and not have the power to change everything? Because that is what omniscience without omnipotence boils down to.
It doesn’t always seem that way, especially when we are struggling through something hard, but in certain situations, ignorance really is bliss.
We’re in the same boat
Like Job, I have many questions that I may never know the answers to. Like most people, I often feel like my life is unfair and I want to ask:
Why do I have so many problems? Why did this bad thing happen to me? Why does so-and-so have [insert blessing here] and I don’t? Why do I have [insert problem here] and so-and-so doesn’t?
I just have to actively remind myself to also ask the opposites, to put things into a healthier perspective:
Why do I have so many blessings? Why did this wonderful thing happen to me? Why do I have [insert blessing here], and someone else doesn’t? Why does so-and-so have [insert problem here] and I was spared?
And at some point, I must simply stop asking why, and figure out where to go from here.