A Different Take on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Questions around suffering and pain are stock in trade for me as a writer. I know that I can’t stand most Christian justifications (i.e., bullshit) for why terrible things happen. I know that even well-thought-out theological arguments around how God can be all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow great suffering still fall far short for me. I believe that great good can come out of suffering, but I don’t believe that God either orchestrates or even actively allows specific instances of suffering for some greater good or plan.

I know that I am a Christian because of the cross, because God—miraculously, unbelievably—knows how it feels to despair and be forsaken. And I am a Christian because of Easter; the resurrection makes real and tangible the idea that light will always overcome darkness, that love is always more powerful than death.

Beyond all that I know and believe is much that I don’t understand. I don’t have a grand theory of why and how a loving, all-powerful God created a world that embodies so much pain. It is much easier to propose grand theories of why and how a loving, all-powerful God created a world that embodies so much beauty and love.

I think there may be some wisdom hiding in those last two sentences, about where our attention ultimately belongs—on the good, the beautiful, the lovely and loving. On abundant daily grace rather than what looks like its absence.

Even so, that still doesn’t explain where the hand of God is when my little girl breaks her legs for no good reason or children of loving parents are orphaned or young men with vague notions about opposing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan decide to amputate a bunch of runner’s legs with a couple of bombs.

But now I’m pondering some new ideas (for me, anyway…probably not new for theologians who discuss theodicy for a living). I just read Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life. It is the story of Ursula Todd, born one snowy February night in 1910 to an upper-class English family living outside London. The novel’s premise is that Ursula is born again and again, and dies again and again, in different ways and at different times. She dies immediately at birth because of the cord around her neck, she drowns as a four-year-old, she falls out an attic window, she succumbs to the 1918 flu epidemic, she dies several times in the same bombing raid during the London blitz, under slightly different circumstances each time.

Ursula is not reincarnated in the traditional sense. She isn’t born again in a future time, in different circumstances. Rather, she always returns to that snowy February night to be born again into the same house and family. In each life, she meets mostly the same cast of characters, with a few notable exceptions.

The mechanisms of how this works go unexplained, but explanations aren’t necessary. Essentially, the novel explores the many directions our lives can go in, and how one’s destiny is determined and altered along the way by circumstances—some profound, some quotidian, some obvious, some subtle. Ursula’s story brings to vivid life the question that all of us ask of our lives now and then: What if….?

Ursula obtains a gradual understanding of her unusual circumstances, as frequent deja vu and evocative dreams lead her to a stronger and stronger sense, through her various lifetimes, that she has some power to control the future because she has seen it, albeit in various iterations. [Sort-of spoiler alert: The information I'm about to share is available in many online reviews of Life After Life, and I'm not offering many details. Nonetheless, I am about to reveal an important plot point.] A crucial question becomes whether Ursula will use her knowledge to kill Hitler before he can destroy Europe and draw the world into war. Ultimately, she decides that she has another ultimate mission—one with less global impact than killing Hitler, but that saves her own family.

Life After Life left me with many unanswered questions about Ursula’s story, including why she decided how to use her unusual power of foresight as she did. And it left me contemplating those old and difficult questions about suffering.

Some of Ursula’s lives are happier than others. Some of her deaths are more tragic than others. Even before she truly understands what is happening to her, she is frequently overcome by terror and foreboding that something terrible is about to happen, even if she doesn’t know what and doesn’t yet understand that her foresight stems from having been in this moment of time before. She takes action in these cases, without understanding why, and her actions do indeed prevent some terrible things from happening—sometimes her own death, sometimes the death or great suffering of others.

Yet, none of Ursula’s lives are free from suffering. In every life, she mourns the death of people she loves. In almost every life in which she survives to adulthood, she also survives the terror, deprivation, and violence of World War II. In every life, her family copes with the strained relationships, misunderstandings, and hurts (both petty and far from it) that mark all families.

In every one of Ursula’s lives, people suffer and people die tragically. The circumstances of death and suffering change from life to life, but that they exist never changes.

Reading Life After Life makes me wonder if we overthink the question of why people suffer when God is all-loving and all-powerful. (Most of the characters in Life After Life do not have any strong religious belief. Questions about God are largely irrelevant, though questions about reincarnation, the afterlife, and destiny are woven throughout.) In pondering this novel, I’m left with a simple and obvious notion: Suffering and pain are always part of life. Beauty and love are also always part of life. Our choices, both purposeful and accidental, cannot change those facts. But they can alter the balance. Some of Ursula’s lives are sadder and more desperate than others. The sadness and desperation can be attributed partly to chance, but also to how she chooses to respond to her circumstances and whether she chooses to be passive or active when faced with danger or outright evil.

The most important question, perhaps, isn’t why suffering and pain exist. Perhaps the most important question is how can we, in this world where suffering and pain coexist with beauty and love, live in a way to tip the balance toward the good?

This question addresses how things are rather than delving into why they are the way they are. It doesn’t make for particularly deep theological or philosophical discourse. It doesn’t answer the anguished “Why?” that so naturally pours out of our hurting hearts. But as a guiding principle for how to live, I don’t think we can do much better.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • ngotts

    I don’t have a grand theory of why and how a loving, all-powerful God created a world that embodies so much pain.

    There’s a very simple answer of course: no such god exists.

  • mhelbert

    Excellent Post! We do tend to allow the negative to trump the positive. Jesus didn’t explain why things happened, he went about helping others deal with their pain.
    Thank You!

  • http://twitter.com/Rachel_M_Stone Rachel Marie Stone

    “Perhaps the most important question is how can we, in this world where
    suffering and pain coexist with beauty and love, live in a way to tip
    the balance toward the good?”

    I love, love, love this. I know you know at least some of these stories already, but for me this was driven home by the fact that I could *not* have an epidural (thanks, scoliosis surgery and OI!) and thus had no choice but to experience the pain of childbirth, once in a very harsh sort of environment and once in a very loving, caring environment. The experiences convinced me that pain is so different when we are treated with gentleness and kindness and respect. And there have even been numerous and varied studies showing how compassionate human presence, words, and touch profoundly ease pain and suffering. For over a hundred years, people have been trying to figure out how to make birth (for example) painless, but some studies and stories suggest that this isn’t really the most important or best goal. Instead of trying to make birth painless, some suggest, we should try to make it HUMANE. (The Anticipatory Corpse by Jeffrey Bishop, suggests some similar things about end of life care.)

  • cwgmpls

    “she is frequently overcome by terror and foreboding that something terrible is about to happen”
    A good description of what it is like to live without some kind of God. Knowledge of what is possible without a sense of greater meaning leads to a life of unending anxiety and fear. Lives full of anxiety and fear is why the U.S. is not the most obese, over-medicated, addicted, and materialistic culture in history. In the absence of a greater meaning in our lives, we reach for some kind of drug to numb our anxieties and fear.

    Suffering is terrible. But we only can survive by living through it. Trying to hide or cover up suffering only leads to addiction and death.

    Suffering is terrible. But have you contemplated what life would be like with no suffering or pain of any kind? What would life be like with no pain to warn us that our food is too hot, or warn us that a muscle is injured? In a life of total numbness, without pain of any kind, we would wear ourselves and our body to the ground in a matter of days. Our life would end quickly, with no sense that it had any meaning at all.

    I’m not trying to make excuses for, or minimize suffering. To the contrary, suffering is part of the essence of a whole life. We can’t be human without it.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree in a big picture way that suffering is part of a full life. But in the face of a specific person’s specific suffering, such an explanation falls flat. For a parent mourning the sudden death of a child asking “Why?” the notion that suffering gives texture and meaning to life is nonsense. I actually think that, despite the fact that many people in the grips of terrible suffering ask “Why?” we should stop trying to answer that question. Any explanation of suffering, no matter how solid or reasonable, fails in the face of a person’s deepest pain. In those moments, we need to simply be present, offering kindness, helping to tip the balance toward the good.

      • cwgmpls

        I agree that the question “Why?” is unanswerable in those instances. All we can do is be with others in suffering and let them know they are not alone.

        The only suffering worse than experiencing a loved-one in pain is the experiencing the same suffering while being alone.

    • ngotts

      “A good description of what it is like to live without some kind of God.”

      Er, no. As someone who does live without any kind of God, I can assure you it is a completely and utterly inaccurate description of my life.

      “Lives full of anxiety and fear is why the U.S. is not the most obese,
      over-medicated, addicted, and materialistic culture in history.”

      I guess you meant “now” rather than “not”. Assuming that’s true, why is it more obese, over-medicated, addicted and materialistic than the countries of western Europe, where many more people live without any kind of God?

      • cwgmpls

        Europeans live with some kind of God. Their God of community, society and culture is much stronger than in the U.S. Europeans, in general, do not go through life as alone individuals as much as we do in the U.S.

        • ngotts

          That’s just blithering nonsense: community, society and culture are not gods – they are community, society, and culture.

          • cwgmpls

            And you can worship them as much as you worship money, God, or the Easter Bunny.

          • ngotts

            No, you can’t – nor does anyone worship the Easter Bunny. Even if you could worship community, society or culture, that would not show that anyone in Europe actually does so.

      • cwgmpls

        By the way, alcohol is abused at the same rate in Northern Europe as in the U.S. And the suicide rate there is much higher. In addition, prescription drug use in France is much higher than U.S.

        Europe does have a much stronger belief in community, which I think is the main advantage that Europe has over the U.S. in terms of its health.

        • ngotts

          No, the suicide rate is not in general higher in northern Europe. I don’t know how you measure alcohol abuse, as opposed to alcohol consumption, nor do you specify what prescription drugs you are talking about. But in any case, you yourself identified the USA as “the most obese,
          over-medicated, addicted, and materialistic culture in history”, and it is also far more religious than western Europe. My own view is that the USA’s higher levels of social pathology and religiosity are probably both consequences of its greater economic inequality and hence personal insecurity, see here. But for progressive Christians, that’s an awkward message: the more you succeed in your progressive goals, the more you will weaken the hold of Christianity.

          • cwgmpls

            I agree with you quite a bit. Religious Fundamentalism is a form of addiction, and it is rampant in the U.S., together with the drugs, obesity, and consumerism.

            Religion is not the question. Everyone has some kind of religion. Left alone, with nothing to hang on to, humans are left with is terror and foreboding, as the article describes.

            People either believe in something, or they have despair. The question for everyone to consider is: What do you worship?

          • ngotts

            No, everyone does not have some kind of religion. I don’t worship anything, and it is actually rather insulting for you to tell me that I do, when I know I don’t. This claim in any case makes nonsense of your earlier one, because it would mean that no-one is “without some kind of God”, so living without one could not be the cause of terror and despair.

          • cwgmpls

            You can’t be insulted if you don’t have esteem for something.

          • ngotts

            So what? Esteem is not worship.

          • cwgmpls

            I’m not going to argue semantics. In 1979, Bob Dylan wrote “Gotta Serve Somebody”. He was right. If you serve nobody, you will be a nervous wreck. A person can cover up the nervousness with addiction or fundamentalism, or they can learn to live with the nervousness and anxiety of life by serving something healthy. Everyone faces that same choice. You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine. There’s no point in arguing about it.

          • ngotts

            Well you did in fact “argue semantics” by trying to equate esteem and worship, which is ridiculous. But in any case, I serve nobody, and am not a nervous wreck. That’s not semantics and Bob Dylan was, in fact, wrong.

          • cwgmpls

            Yes, I am equating them. And I don’t see the point in arguing about it. Esteem and worship are a matter of degree, perhaps, but any dictionary will list the words as related to each other. It’s not like I am coming out of left field or something.

            You make your choice, I make mine. I’m glad you hold esteem for something. So many people don’t. Or they hold esteem for things that cause harm. And that is very sad. I wish you peace.

          • ngotts

            The point in arguing about it is that you appear to hold by Humpty-Dumpty’s dictum that “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”, and that this makes productive conversation almost impossible.

          • cwgmpls

            If calling “worship”, “high esteem”, instead works for you, then by all means do it. I don’t see any point in asking others to give up the word “worship” though.

            I would be interested in hearing what distinction you would make between the two words, though. And I appreciate the thoughtful conversation!

          • ngotts

            Worship is not equivalent to “high esteem”. I have high esteem for my wife, for Desmond Tutu, for the novel Middlemarch, for the proof that there is no largest prime number, for the Large Hadron Collider – but I don’t worship any of them. I’m not asking anyone to give up the word “worship”, but to employ it in something close to its normal usage, so as to be understood clearly. In normal parlance, it refers to the attitude and behaviour of a person toward something they hold to have properties that make it radically superior to an ordinary human being, and to which they pledge unconditional respect and obedience. In this sense, some people worship something, others don’t.

          • cwgmpls

            When life starts to feel pointless and you start to despair, where do you turn? Whatever your answer is, I would call that your object of worship. Your refuge in despair is certainly a stronger relationship than the word “esteem” is adequate for. I would use the word “worship” for that relationship.

          • ngotts

            Life never does seem pointless. I can’t recall when I last started to despair, but if I did, I would turn to my wife, my son, my siblings, my friends. I love them and they love me (love is of course a stronger relationship than esteem), but it’s simply absurd to claim that I worship any of them.