Why bad things happen to good people

The day Rabbi Harold Kushner was told by a pediatrician that his three-year-old son Aaron would never grow taller than three feet—suffering the symptoms of progeria, or “rapid aging”—his entire belief about God went out the window.

He would go on to wonder how a God that he had been so loyal to could do such a terrible thing to him. Rabbi Kushner went on to make it his life’s work to explore this idea, eventually penning a book about it—When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

This may seem like an extreme example, but we all suffer blows in life that seem unfair. After being put in a time-out as a kid, I used to complain to my mom that “It’s just not fair.” She turned to me and said, “Elisha, life’s just not fair.” At the time I thought she was mocking me, but the fact is she was just giving me one of the elementary lessons of life.

It seems to be the case that nature doesn’t discriminate between good and bad, the faithful and the faithless, the criminals and the saints. Otherwise, why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does an entire village get wiped out in a hurricane—were all those people bad? Why does a mother lose her son, why do innocent people die or get injured in accidents caused by drunk drivers?

When bad things happen to good people, sometimes we find religion, or bargain with God, or maybe just fall into a deep depression at the behest of the saying: “life isn’t fair, it’s never been fair to me and it never will be.”

But this doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. It just means that we don’t know why bad things happen to good people. There’s a lot of guesswork out there, but that’s mostly what it is. So, I think the question shouldn't be "Why do bad things happen to good people? Rather the question is more aptly, "What do we do when bad things happen to good people (or us)?

The bottom line is—we need to learn how to be kinder and gentler with ourselves.

This may seem Pollyanna, but it’s actually very practical. When bad things happen sometimes we think we’re being punished in some way. If trauma is lingering, we think there’s something wrong with us, leading to greater shame and disappointment.

For example, you may wonder and judge yourself if you still cry years after a trauma has passed. The neural circuitry that became fused together during that trauma is still fused together, so there’s nothing wrong with the tears—it’s just automatic. What gets in the way is the judgments that follow. It’s natural to cry when a trauma button gets pushed, allowing ourselves to feel the emotion. Even cradling it, as you would a young child in pain, can actually nurture self-compassion and self-acceptance.

If bad things have happened to you, or are even happening right now, consider intentionally trying to be kinder or more compassionate with yourself. If that is difficult for you, perhaps find a group or some friends who will be compassionate toward you. This may make a world of difference.

And as always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions with us. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

This article was originally posted on Mindfulness & Psychotherapy with Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.