Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now that I’m now through 100 posts, the one thing I’ve noticed is that though this was started as a Unitarian Universalist-tinged blog, it’s rarely directly about that. Quite a lot of time has been dedicated to issues of justice, equality, and minority rights. That fact that most of my essays here could be tied into one or more UU Principles if I had wanted to is probably good proof that I’m hanging out in the right religious community.

I met Marcella during a summer debate program in Washington D.C in 2008. While we didn’t converse all that much during the camp itself, through the magic of instant messaging we’ve become close friends and talked regularly through our respective college experiences. She let me read the final draft of her senior thesis about the history of anarchist guerrillas in Franco-era Spain- a fact I mentioned when I posted that amazing photo of Marina Ginestà.

For two or three years, her sister had been sick with very nasty, aggressive forms of cancer. Endured multiple cycles of treatment and remission, but it kept coming back. Eventually she went into hospice and died. It was hard on Marcella in a way I can’t understand nor properly articulate.

A few days later I messaged her on Skype. I offered what condolences I could, and found her in a bit of a crisis. Not only had the cancer been aggressive and in the long run incurable, her time in the hospice was ugly. Marcella had come back from graduation to see her go through her final days. She did not die the peaceful death we wish for ourselves one day. Quite the opposite.

And so Marcella talked with me about one of the great questions. The one that perhaps more than anything has led people to cease believing in god or a certain religious system.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

I offered my view on the matter, which might have been a bit blunt to some people but was well-received. Personally, I find some solace in there being no god- because then there’s no higher force that was supposed to prevent crap like this from happening.

In a purely naturalistic world, Marcella’s sister died because of chance- some people will get cancer in their lifetime, some will not. There are environmental factors, but a lot of it you can’t control. If you believe in a powerful god that should uphold all that is good and just in the world, you now have to rationalize what happened to your loved one. As she came from a devout Irish Catholic family, the “it’s God’s will” explanation was common. Ultimately, we both felt that imagining a higher power with such a strange, often unfair way of doing things just seemed wrong.

My paternal grandmother, a devout Presbyterian and the most pious and charitable person I’ve ever met, was diagnosed a few years ago with fast-moving small-cell cancer in multiple organs. The radiation therapy just bought her a year and a half, as there was no hope of eliminating it all. When she died, there were thousands of people her age that were healthy but also criminals, or selfish, or bigoted. If you look at things from a cosmic perspective, it seems deeply unfair.

Taking the question of why do bad things happen to good people (and vice-versa) and eliminating the supernatural element gives us a very different question. A question that Unitarian Universalists both answer and act through. Working towards sexual and racial equality, safeguarding the environment, giving poor students and the homeless the help they need to live and succeed- it’s all an attempt to give people the help they need when bad things happen to them, or prevent bad things in the future.

If we take the positions that the jury’s still out on the supernatural, and that the most concrete step towards justice is to create a Heaven on Earth, then the good and bad in the world become our personal concerns. There’s no chance to eliminate all the evil in the world, but much can be done to make things more fair and more free. When I look at the question why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t see a question of god, but a question of how the world works.

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