Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?


I remember my mom often commenting about the unfairness of life. How could a regular 30-something woman like her--with two kids, a house and a job--come down with a chronic illness so early in her life? Why did she have to spend the second half of her 30s through the end of her life lying in bed, struck down by pain, trying to manage staying alive for one more moment? How could God be great if he let bad things happen to someone so good? 


This is the house I grew up in. We were always wondering why life was so unfair, why bad things happened to good people, and how to reconcile our understanding of God with the reality of pain and suffering. 


It wasn’t until after she passed in 2014 that I was able to contemplate these questions on my own terms. When she was alive, we were her support system. Her viewpoint on the world crystallized into one way of seeing things and our job was to support her in her in her ways of thinking (or at least that’s what I thought my job was). 


I was also young--I was 8 when she got sick and 25 when she passed away. She was the dominant influence in my life as we managed both my pains of growing up and her pains of chronic illness. Because of this, we were never able to reach a fully satisfying answer to the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? We were too busy growing up and wallowing to concern ourselves with legitimate philosophy. 


After her death, I picked up this contemplation with fresh eyes. I didn’t need to color my investigation with her point of view or humor her perspective on the phone. I could start over, acknowledge the self-pity I felt for being dealt a lousy hand,  and get down to brass tacks about how the world actually functions. 


After all, we weren’t the only ones who were suffering or who were dealt a bad hand. One quick scan of a public place reveals just how many people are doing their best despite severely challenging circumstances. 


As I’ve talked to more people, both about my mom’s struggles and the struggles others are having, I continually come across the idea of fairness. How can we put in so much effort to be good and do good, and still get avalanches of misery thrown our way? And how is it that some people manage to stand strong amidst the chaos of negative circumstances? These are the two ideas I’ll be exploring in this article: On the one hand, how life actually works based on my current understanding; and on the other hand, how we can discover happiness despite it. 


Because even though my mom wasn’t able to figure out how to be happy with an unfair illness, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And if she were able to speak to me and reveal the wisdom that was shown to her in death, I’m sure she would want me to understand that happiness is where we come from and where we’re headed. And because of this,  happiness is possible in life under all conditions and at all times. No matter how challenging it gets (because it will get challenging), happiness is always available to be revealed. 


How Life Works


Life never promised to be fair to us. In fact, what we get at the end of the ride is probably the most unfair thing of all--after we spend a lifetime building, creating, helping, sharing, loving, accomplishing, exploring, imagining, and doing--we get...death? The ultimate nada


If we want to address the issue of fairness, we ought to be honest with ourselves about our current belief systems of what’s fair and what’s unfair. If we view death as being unfair, as most of us do deep in our bones, it will follow that anything resembling or reminding us of death will also register as unfair. 


This was certainly the case with my mom, although I wasn’t able to see it until after she passed away. I had assumed that since she grappled with illness for 17 years, she had made peace with her mortality. After she passed, I realized that negative circumstances don’t always produce more clarity and peace about our fate. Sometimes they actually pigeon-hole us deeper into our ideology of what’s fair or unfair.


To see life dualistically divided between fair and unfair does us no favors. It’s a short jump away from viewing life as a series of goods and bads, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and so on. But life only looks this way from our very limited point of view. If we were to zoom out and take in the entire story of existence, nothing fair or unfair is actually happening. In fact, from this larger and more inclusive perspective, everything is already going according to plan. When we allow our perspective to zoom out, we turn what used to be the story of my life into what is now the story of all that ever was or could be, which is a much more real story because it encompasses more of existence. 


This may be a tough pill to swallow for those of us who don’t like our circumstances, but reality doesn’t function based on our preferences. And as long as we want reality to function based on our preferences, we are setting ourselves up for psychological suffering down the road. 


So why exactly do bad things happen to good people? Because if there’s such a thing as something good, then there must be such as a thing as something bad. If something is created, it must also be destroyed. This is how cosmic events play out on every level of existence, not just for human beings, and especially not just for ‘good’ human beings. Everything in life is continuously changing, which means we are bound to come across something we don’t like at some point. 

Can We Be Happy When Bad Things Happen?


While my mom was never able to make peace with the bad circumstances in her life, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Her struggles have inspired me in what is now the biggest quest I have ever embarked on: How to be happy despite bad things happening. 


If our circumstances don’t give us freedom, we need to find it for ourselves, and our pathway to it is through understanding. As someone who has historically cherry-picked the negative events in my life to obsess about and feed on, it’s becoming obvious that this contemplation is what ultimately generates freedom.


We can start by asking ourselves a simple question: Why are we so afraid of bad things happening? Let’s use my mom as an example. If I were to ask her this question, I have a feeling her first response would be: “Pain! I’m tired of the pain!” I might carry on: “Okay. Why are you scared of pain?” To which she might say, “Because it hurts like hell and I feel like I’m dying!” Bingo. 


When we dig deep enough into our fear and extract the different layers, our number one fear stands revealed: I am afraid of dying. But even that’s not quite accurate. It’s not death that I’m afraid of, it’s total disappearance that I’m afraid of. And because I don’t know what’s waiting for me at death, total disappearance seems like a possible option, and if it’s a possible option, then I must be afraid of it. 


This fear modulates itself in different forms and reveals itself subtly as: I am afraid of spiders! I am afraid of physical pain! I am afraid of losing my job! I am afraid of someone close to me leaving! If we were to peel back the layers of all of these fears, the fear of total disappearance is at the root of them all. And it is this fear that underpins both our belief in the fair/unfair paradigm and keeps us from embracing negative circumstances in our lives.  


If you’ve stuck this out and read this far, congratulations! Most people don’t let themselves think through to this point. But we still have farther to go (unless you want to stop reading and be depressed for a bit, but I promise--the tone picks up from here). Because now that we understand what we are afraid of, we can take the next steps in our contemplation and look at whether this fear is logically possible.


We know that in death our minds and bodies disappear (or more accurately, are transformed into something else). But what we don’t know is whether I disappear. So the question is: Am I a property of the body or am I prior to the body? Because if I am a property of the body (as in, what I am is created by the body, which is the conventional point of view of our culture), then it follows that whatever I am will be destroyed in death. But if I am prior to my body, then perhaps I do not share the limits or the destiny of this body. 


How might we find out the answer to this question? Am I a property of the body or am I prior to the body? Well, if we were to listen to our culture, we would believe that whatever we essentially are is created in the body, despite having no scientific proof to back up this claim (thanks a lot, culture!). If, on the other hand, we were to consult logic and experience, we may come up with a different answer. Do you want to try? 


See if you can discern whatever it is within you that actually experiences--the root or core of whatever you call I. See if you can discern whatever within you has never changed, modified itself, fallen asleep, gotten angry, etc. Whatever it is that renders your experience continuous and knowable. Whatever it is that is whole regardless if we lose our vision, our arm, our leg, our mind. Is this I something that was created by the body--did it ever have a beginning? Did it turn on at some point only after the body was created? Or was it ever-present--a dimensionless platform that the body and mind faded into? And if this I was never created, can it be destroyed? If this I is already something, can it ever be nothing? 


Spend some time with these questions and contemplate the nature of whatever it is we call I. Because at the end of this investigation, we see clearly that the fear of total disappearance is completely irrational--if we have never disappeared before, why would we believe that we will disappear at some point in the future? And what would we disappear into? Because whatever we would disappear into would be our true reality, and therefore, we would not be able to claim that we disappeared. When we look at these questions, we realize that the disappearance we are so afraid of is an impossibility! 


This realization runs contrary to the teachings of our culture, which would have us believe that what we essentially are is a finite body. We are experiencing a body, but that doesn’t mean that we are a body. When we start to ask ourselves these questions, we reveal ourselves as the awareness with which the body is known, which does not necessarily share the limits or the destiny of the body. This implication is huge! We are used to thinking, feeling and behaving as if awareness is a property of the body, and that each body has a unique awareness that goes in and out of existence as we’re born and die. 


But this contemplation exposes us to the possibility that awareness is prior to the body, bigger than the body--perhaps so big that it is the same awareness refracted in each of our minds. What if it’s not the world that we share, but awareness that we share? 


To experience happiness in negative circumstances is to know ourselves as awareness instead of as a body. This is a very simplistic way of describing it, and to experience this happiness requires a huge undertaking of understanding on our part, but it is possible. And why does knowing ourselves as awareness instead of a body make us happy? Because nothing bad can ever happen or has ever happened to awareness. When we know ourselves as something that is stable, lasting, unchanging, ever-present and infinite, we can experience any amount of negative circumstances without feeling despondent. In fact, our negative circumstances are designed to bring us in touch with awareness and remind us that we are that which does not change. Amidst the good, the bad and the ugly, awareness stands alone. And we must stand with it if we wish to experience lasting peace and happiness through life’s curveballs. 


And this is how I’ve come to see my own negative circumstances as food for the fire. Disguised blessings that enable me to ask these questions and keep me interested in finding the answers. The good and bad will never stop coming our way, but our understanding of who we are is what determines their impact on our lives. 


Over to you! We’re here to answer your questions--These are big topics and we LOVE talking about them with you. Drop us a comment to start the conversation! 

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