A good friend who lives on the East Coast lost his 28-year-old daughter in a tragic accident of carbon monoxide poisoning.
I wrote a short note of sympathy. My friend answered with a long letter. An e-mail, it nonetheless felt damp, each line wet with tears of his grief.
I learned that his daughter was the light of his life, a young woman with a joy in living. She wrote poetry and he hoped it could be published.
In his sorrow, my friend told me of the grave site he and his wife had chosen for their daughter. It was in the country, amid mature trees. He would see to it that the grave would always be covered with beautiful flowers.
I wonder now, as I have wondered through much of my life, why do these things happen to the good and innocent?
Why the slaughter of innocents in war? Why the maimed? Why injustice? Why inequality? Why the untimely deaths of the good?
Browsing in a used book store, I recently came across a work that touched upon these unanswerable questions. Written 30 years ago, it quietly became a best seller, I would assume because thousands also ask and hope for answers to those very questions.
Harold S. Kushner, a Boston rabbi, is the author of “When Bad Things Happen To Good People,” a slim volume that transcends religion. It is for all persons who believe in a superior being, or who sometimes wonder if there is a superior being.
No startling revelations. The book attempts to help persons cope with grief and gain insight in reaction to tragedy. Yet it is more, a common sense approach to living.
Kushner was no stranger to grief. He asked the question of bad things happening to the innocent when told his 3-year-old son developed progeria, a disease of rapid aging. The child would look like a little old man, never grow more three feet, and die in his teens.
The tragedy made no sense to a then young and inexperienced Kushner.
“I had been a good person. I had tried to do what was right in the sight of God. More than that, I was living a religiously committed life, more than most people I know, who had large, healthy families. I believed I was following God’s ways and doing his work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could he do this to me?”
Kushner knew that one day he had to write a book, and he did, “for all those people whose love for God and devotion to Him led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves that they deserved it.”
For Kushner, God does not seek to punish parents by causing their children to suffer, or a nation by inflicting thousands of deaths on is populace by a war. God does not “call” the good people because he “needs” them as so many people say God does.
But sometimes, bad things happen because bad things happen, bad luck or bad timing, subscribing to randomness in the universe. The laws of nature do not make exceptions for good people. Often, there are no reasons.
“Why then do bad things happen to good people.” One reason is that our being human leaves us free to hurt one another, that God can’t stop us without taking away the freedom that makes us human . Human beings can cheat each other, rob each other, hurt each other, and God can only look down in compassion and pity and how little we have learned over the ages about how human beings behave.”
What of the holocaust and the deaths of six million? What of the deaths of millions of others during the rush of war after war. Kushner believes that God does not control man’s choosing between good and evil, but believes that God was with the victims, that their tears and prayers aroused God’s compassion.
“I would like to think that the anguish I feel when I read of the sufferings of innocent people reflects God’s anguish and God’s compassion, even if his way of feeling pain is different than ours. I would like to think that He is the source of my being able to feel sympathy and outrage, and that He and I are on the same side when we stand with the victim against those who would hurt him.”
Kushner doesn’t have all the answers, as no clergyman or philosopher has had before them. But, as we go through life, we likely will be met with tragedy and terrible events that appear senseless to us. Probably they are.
But, as Kushner says, there is no reason to lose faith and all that is positive in our lives. When confronted with the “bad things,” one can see only the “bad things,” or one can step back and see the bad things in the context of a whole life. What is important is our response to them.