Monday, November 23, 2009

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Bad things happen to good people.  Good things happen to bad people.

There are actually several reasons why this is true.  But I don't think it is as true as it seems.  In order to examine this we have to start with defining a few terms.

  • Good people - A good person cares for others.  
  • Bad people - A bad person cares for themselves.
  • Good things - Anything that a person enjoys. 
  • Bad things - Anything that a person doesn't enjoy.

No person is perfectly good or bad.  All of us are capable of creating both beauty and terror.  Most of us seem to slide along in the lukewarm middle--doing little noteworthy on either extreme for much of our lives.  Some people do more than others.  Some people do more good than bad, or more bad than good.  The human race is made up of few Hitlers and few Mother Teresas.  But most of us live on the continuium in between.

Different people find joy in different activities.  Many activities would be enjoyable to a large majority of us--beautiful vacations and beautiful homes.  But even beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  And there are a number of activities that would not be enjoyable to many people--sacrificing yourself for the sake of others, gaining power over a large number of others.  But I suggest that the selfish joys are quite universal, while the other-focused joys have much more limited appeal.  If that is true then the people who enjoy serving others have a broader range of enjoyments than the more selfish folks.

Think for a second about what a good person will enjoy.  They enjoy bringing joy to others.  They comfort the sick, help the needy, care for those who cannot care for themselves.  These are things that bad people will not enjoy as much.  And these are things that are not highly visible.

Think about what a bad person will enjoy.  They enjoy bringing joy to themselves.  They buy big houses and fancy cars.  They throw large parties.  These are generally quite visible things.  These are often things that even good people can see the pleasure in.

This distinction explains a large amount of the actual discrepancy of outcomes between good and bad people.  From the outside we see a person who has lavished good gifts upon themselves and we are jealous of those good gifts.  A good person with the same resources will give much away and appear to have fewer good gifts for themselves.  So a good person may have experienced a wider range of joys (and I might suggest a deeper and more fulfilling set of joys) but those joys are hidden in a way that others can rarely become jealous of.  While the spoils that a bad person lavishes on himself are easy to see and envy.

Consequences follow actions.  Sometimes the consequences are immediate, and other times they are delayed.  Sometimes the action that caused a consequence is apparent, and sometimes it is hidden.  These simple truths enable logic, science, and all of human society.

If a man hits his thumb with a hammer it will hurt.  The hammer doesn't know or care that the man is volunteering his time to help someone else.  The hammer only hits what it is aimed at.

Imagine a world where the hammers magically know what the carpenters are up to.  A carpenter who is volunteering his time to help others will be magically protected from hitting his thumb.  And a carpenter who is selfishly overcharging for inferior materials and workmanship will be magically caused to his his thumb quite often.  What kind of world would that be?

Science would cease to exist.  It would be impossible to conduct an experiment because the intentions and feelings of the scientist would always distort the outcome of the experiment.

Society would fail.  All a person would need to do is act vaguely with good intent in his heart, and success would magically find him.  There could be no competition.  There could be no games.  There could be no achievement.  There could be no learning.

This magical interruption is only possible with some intelligent all-powerful being (or beings) constantly measuring the intentions of every person.  That would not qualify as life.  The people would merely be Pavlovian puppets acting out the desires of the being(s) in control.

Instead of a magical-intent-based system, we live under a simple action-consequence system.

When I work hard and earn a paycheck it is simply the outcome that I expect.  I can learn to work harder or smarter to receive a bigger paycheck.  There is no crisis or self-evaluation in earning a paycheck.  But when I get paid a bonus, especially an unexpected bonus, I am forced to re-evaluate my place in the world.  And similarly, when I get laid off I am forced to examine myself and the criteria that I use to judge the world around me.  Unexpected outcomes cause us to search for the actions that we took to bring about these consequences.  That search often entails introspection.

Take a good man and a bad man, and sit them next to each other on an airplane.  Will they even speak to each other?  If they do, what basis do they have for a relationship?  They might find some common bond and have a significant conversation, but the odds are quite poor.  They have to have something else in common, and discover that commonality, or they will not connect in any meaningful way.

Take the same two men and sit them next to each other in a hospital waiting room.  Now they have a common bond that just might be interesting to both of them.  They will both be vulnerable and searching for answers.

If the waiting room is in the severe burn unit or pediatric oncology then they are that much more bonded to one another by their circumstances.  If they are in a holding cell together, or receiving dialysis together, that bond gets closer and closer.

Similarly, if the same two men are seated next to each other at a football game then they have something obvious and enjoyable in common to discuss.  Ski lifts, sail boats, and car shows all provide venues for good and bad people to meet, interact, and possibly form relationships around their common interests.

In this way, both good and bad events cause good and bad people to mingle in a way that is highly conducive to relationships, deep introspection, and change.

In my mind, that is the real reason why bad things happen to good people.  When a good man experiences bad things, that good man is called by his circumstances to minister to others who experience the same thing.  When a bad person experiences good things, that good many should come into contact with good people who will challenge him to re-evaluate his motive and actions.

I've started writing a fiction novel about this.  Hopefully this article won't steal my thunder on that....

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. If the good man is praying for an opportunity to minister, then being seated in a hospital waiting room can then be a good thing. Perhaps a double blessing, the opportunity to comfort a friend, and an opportunity to comfort a perfect stranger. So, good and bad even are not so easy to pin down. So, good things and bad things are really not so absolute. Interesting thoughts.