Why do bad things happen to good people?

A really good friend of a friend died in a road accident last week. By all accounts a very good, responsible person died suddenly on his way to work. He left two young children and wife to face an uncertain future. Events of this nature, unfortunately, are all too common. A close friend that we really trust or a relative that we love and respect get diagnosed with a terminal health issue. We lament: why do bad things happen to such good people?

Being Good

What does “being good” mean? This by itself is not an easy topic and may be for another time. Let us for this discussion go with a common definition: good people are those who are considerate, courageous, responsible, trustworthy and want the greater good for all and live by the golden rule of ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’. Being good also goes with the expectation of good things from this life.

Good people who are religious and mystical would also expect good things in the afterlife or would want to cease the circle of birth and death altogether. There are different belief systems around the world about causal chains for individual eternal souls extending through reincarnations (karma) or good souls arriving at heaven after life.

For this discussion we are going to confine ourselves to considering this one life and life events that we experience now, from a more objective view.

Whatever be the belief system or point of view, and being good ourselves, when we stub our toes hard or get seriously sick or lose a good relationship we ask ourselves why. For some of the bad events, we might be able to find a direct cause but for many we are left to wonder.

Laws of nature and chance

In my previous blog, “To see the Universe in a grain of sand”, we looked at a view of humans as being transient waves in a cosmic ocean. Natural physical laws governing the universe, unimaginable fortune and conditions leading to a single cell life and force of natural selection killing unfit variations and allowing more fit organisms to evolve on earth. Great and grand are the capacities of the species of Homo Sapiens. Humans are endowed with fantastic body-mind which enabled us to develop languages, build tools and create Internet information network to augment our collective body-mind.

We have a sense of control of our lives. We see our visionary and purposeful actions turn into better than expected results, even against great odds. And when we fail to act as required of the situation, we encounter the consequences. There is a certain predictability to lives as it relates to actions and results. I think the problem comes when we go beyond our ability to generally predict outcomes and assume a sense of total control over results.

Our sense of what is just and fair makes us want only good things happening to good people. And, here lies the problem. In the context of natural laws and chance governing our lives, our actions ‘contribute’ largely to results but we do not fully ‘determine’ the results. And, so we do not need to really wonder why bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to all people, and so do good things.

Equanimity

A lot of stress and despair comes out of a sense of wanting complete control over results of our actions. When chance plays its role, trying to establish a clear connection between causal actions and results usually leads to a blame game. We all can reduce the stress and live with a sense of equanimity when we understand our own life events and life events of others, allowing for chance to play its part in the results. This is a different interpretation of Bhagavad Gita, which describes Karma Yoga as proper action with proper attitude of accepting whatever the results. Accepting of results requires us to understand that we do not fully determine results as much as we can control our own actions. Acceptance can be easier when we allow for chance, despite all our diligence in action.

People behaving badly, say with cruelty, increase the chance of a bad result, for themselves and others, and yet may not always suffer a bad consequence. Good people through proper action, say with kindness, increase the chance of a good result, for themselves and others, and yet may not always enjoy the fruits of that action. Similarly, bad habits, though increasing the chance of bad results, might not result in something immediately bad. Good habits, though reducing the chance of bad results, might not eliminate bad results. Reducing stress and despair with this perspective and helping others understand this are good actions. And, a life of such proper action and attitude would be a useful life and life well lived.