Why You Have It So Bad
It’s only human to wonder why bad things happen to good people — and the “$hit just happens” answer is actually better than you think.
Tragic suffering often picks its victims at random. For example, when an airplane crashes, everyone on board is often killed, regardless of how nice the people are, how old they are, how smart they are, or how much they are loved. Likewise, a deadly virus doesn’t ‘care’ about anything but contingent aspects of our biology. Various physical, biological and social forces have caused suffering on a mass scale throughout history, and they operate blindly, taking out the innocent and the villainous with the same uncaring impunity.
The universe rolled the dice, and you lost.
This random aspect is not thought to be very helpful when it comes to understanding why we suffer — especially for those in the throes of immense suffering. This is because we seem to lose any meaning behind suffering when we say, “$hit just happens.” And although we might try to make a tragic event meaningful after the fact by turning lemons into lemonade, this still does not give us an objective reason for our suffering. It is just an option. Randomness means there simply is no reason why: The universe rolled the dice, and you lost.
I have written elsewhere (see The Suffering Equation) that there are very important NON-random aspects of our suffering, especially as it pertains to rates of suffering across and within populations. But when it comes to how that suffering gets distributed amongst people in given a population, the virtues of randomness are too important to overlook.
The first thing the “it’s random” answer has going for it is that it squares with our experience that bad things can happen to good people. In contrast, consider answers that say suffering is:
- a punishment for past sins
- a test / learning opportunity, or
- for some greater good.
Again, if we use the example of an airplane crash — it just seems very implausible that a whole airplane full of people would ever all deserve death as a punishment, or that in dying they are somehow learning anything, or that some greater good has been preserved by such a tragedy.
Although not a great explanation per se, “$hit just happens, and you have to deal with it” is the only answer that doesn’t lead to more questions. There are of course better explanations as to why tragic events happen at all, but that is a slightly different question.
Perhaps even more important than its plausibility, is the way that randomness avoids escalating suffering. Consider the implications if we genuinely thought that suffering was a punishment for sin, for example. Two things would happen.
First, those who suffer would feel even worse because it means they deserve it in some cosmic sense. Second, it implies that those who don’t happen to suffer are actually morally superior, or somehow deserve their happy situation. This dismal habit of victim blaming exacerbates the pain for victims and fosters (undeserved) moral righteousness amongst the rest.
Why bad things happen to good people
Although randomness doesn’t seem to explain much in terms of why any particular person suffers, there is a related question that it actually does help answer, i.e., why bad things happen to good people. For if suffering falls randomly on the population, then good people are just as likely as bad people to suffer.
As perverse as it sounds, bad things happening to good people may be a good sign.
Even further, from a population perspective, the more good people you have, the more likely it is that the good people in the population will bear the suffering. In a population that is 100% good, all the suffering happens to good people!
The ‘$hit happens’ view of suffering thus means that for any given level of suffering, we should expect unjust suffering to increase as the proportion of good to bad people increases. This is a perverse but entirely understandable outcome of a population becoming filled with ‘better’ people. It certainly doesn’t make the suffering any better, but it is nonetheless a positive sign that our society is trending towards the good.
Why some people suffer so much compared to others
I think the most powerful virtue of randomness is its ability to explain why some people suffer so much more than others. For as unfortunate as it is that bad things happen to good people, it is even more vexing when we consider that some people get way more than their fair share of suffering. This is actually an easy one to explain, once we embrace the random mindset.
Consider first the case where suffering is equally rather than randomly distributed across people. For example, let’s say we have a population of 100 people, with a mix of both the good and bad. If we distribute 100 units of tragic suffering across this population equally, we know each person can expect to experience exactly one and only one tragedy in their life. Although equal and predictable, this would still be an unjust world in a way, because everyone suffers, even the good people. It would look like the picture below, where each person (represented by a square) gets a single tragedy (represented by a dot).
The picture above captures the observation that suffering falls on the good and bad alike, but it does not capture the fact that some suffer more than others. In real life, suffering is not distributed equally across all people. What do we see when we randomize the distribution of suffering? The picture below shows the same population with the same 100 units of suffering, only this time the suffering was randomly distributed using a program on my computer.
Notice that as soon as we randomly distribute the suffering, the nature of the injustice changes (and gets worse). Not only does suffering not care about your moral qualities, but it also doesn’t care how much suffering you’ve already had.
The outcome of this, as shown above, is that many people get no suffering (at least 25% in this particular run), the bulk of the people get a little suffering, (46% got between zero and one units of suffering), but a small portion of unlucky people (in this case, 8%) would experience much suffering (three or more tragic occurrences) in their lives. And as before, the more good people there are (out of 100) on this graph, the higher the chances that some very good people will suffer the most.
Every time the randomizing is done the results change slightly, but there are always those who get none, and those who get lots of suffering. This pattern is called Poisson clumping, named after the famous French mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson. When events are truly random and independent of each other, clumps can and do often occur. This phenomenon explains a lot of the “coincidences” we observe or experience in life, such as a sudden spate of murders, shark attacks, etc. These clumps are the fuel for fear-mongers everywhere, and are an unfortunate outcome for victims of multiple tragedies.
Job & Jerry
Now consider the two people (squares) highlighted in Figure 2 above — two people who happen to live right beside each other in graph land.
Let’s call the bottom one ‘Job’ after the righteous man who suffered tremendously in the Old Testament. In our modern version of Job, let’s say he was born to an abusive father, and then sent to a foster home when his mother died in a freak car accident. Despite this turbulent beginning, perhaps Job begins to do well, gets married and has a child. However, financial issues create tension in his marriage, and his wife eventually leaves him, only a year before he finds out he has an inoperable brain tumor. He fights bravely and suffers through all treatments, only to die a withered man at the age of 47. RIP fictional Job.
Job had more than his fair share of suffering, I think we all would agree, even if some have it even worse. We do not need to look far to find people like him. They are in every city, every neighborhood.
Contrast Job’s life to that of Jerry, represented by the square directly above Job. Jerry experienced no real tragedies. Although his life was filled with the usual challenges of growing up, finding oneself, working, raising a family and aging (life isn’t easy!), he had a long and fulfilling life. Life is never perfect, and Jerry worked hard to be sure, but he didn’t suffer any events we’d consider to be truly ‘evil’ or tragic. Jerry didn’t even get cancer from smoking his pipe!
A random world has its share of both Jobs and Jerrys. Jerry didn’t do anything (cosmically) right, and Job didn’t do anything wrong — the only difference between them was where they happened to be when the cosmic dice were thrown. Being one space apart made all the difference in the world, and it had nothing to do with being good or bad.
Job and Jerry are a good reminder about how fickle suffering can be in real life. When suffering is understood to be truly random in its distribution rather than meted out in some sort of order, we can see how it is possible for some people to experience more than their fair share of suffering, regardless of their moral qualities. It actually helps explain why bad things can happen to good people and why some people suffer so much more than others. Further, it keeps us from unfairly blaming victims (either ourselves or others) when bad things happen, and serves as a humble reminder for those of us who have it so good.