“We could bear nearly any pain or disappointment if we thought there was a reason behind it, a purpose, to it.” — Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
My wife Karin is a much more practically-minded, down-to-earth person than I am. So when she was diagnosed in 2005 in her late thirties with a very aggressive life threatening cancer, she never dwelled on questions like ‘Why did this happen?’ or ‘Why me?’ When people asked her if she struggled with such questions or if she felt a sense of cosmic injustice, her characteristically matter-of-fact reply was “Why not me?”
Karin and I had experienced adversity and big life challenges before, but nothing like this. Not that we were really surprised to be facing such a crisis: neither of us had illusions of immunity to the kinds of adversity we had all too often seen hit others. Like me, Karin worked in a helping profession, so we had both witnessed much tragedy in our work, as well as among friends and relatives. Severe adversity seemed almost overdue for us. It seemed obvious to us that there was no reason we should be exempt from misfortune and tragedy.
For several years following the diagnosis, we expected the worst and lived with tremendous uncertainty.
Thanks to a whole lot of dumb luck, and some remarkable medical breakthroughs, we made it through—though one is never really out of the woods with cancer, and we have had more scares in recent years.
In the initial phases of her illness and treatment, the time of greatest uncertainty and vulnerability, I found myself grasping for reassurance and desperately wanting to believe that everything was somehow cosmically ‘meant’ to turn out favorably. But my clinical work as a psychiatrist had honed an ever-present awareness of the power of denial and wishful thinking as defense mechanisms. I had seen how these get deployed by people facing serious threat and uncertainty—all the more so when those people’s fates are being arbitrarily determined by random and trivial factors that seem to mock the significance of their lives.
I realized that I was still trying to come to terms with the full extent to which randomness rules our lives.
I have since become very interested in how my patients grapple with the randomness of adversity and the lack of control over its outcome. I have frequently observed how people divert their precious time, energy and resources into measures that merely create the illusion of control, such as obsessive diets, ‘alternative’ therapies, and superstitious rituals.
Searching for reasons
As a meaning-seeking species, we tend to process events in terms of what they mean to us: is it good or bad for us? And it is a human habit to infer deliberate intention to events in self-referential ways.
We are also a story-telling species. Our brains have a natural proclivity for coherent stories—grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end: things must happen for specific reasons, they must have a point. Our brains are not satisfied with randomness.
“Why did this happen?” and “Why me?” are therefore natural and common questions asked by many people when faced with a sudden adverse event, such as a diagnosis of cancer. “What did I do to deserve this? Did I do something to cause it?” Many people are inclined to wonder if they are being punished by God for some past transgressions, or to ponder if there is some intended mysterious plan or higher reason for their misfortune, perhaps some intended lesson in their suffering.
In my psychiatric practice, I have observed that the belief that life events are somehow intended can have powerful effects on motivation, both positive and negative. This belief is a double-edged sword: it can be reassuring and comforting but can also lead to disillusionment, anguish, and feelings of abandonment by God, under conditions of cruel adversity.
The theological problem of trying to explain why evil and suffering exist in the world is referred to as theodicy. The central quandary is this: “Why do terrible things happen in a world governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God?” How can God simultaneously possess all three of these qualities and yet allow bad things to happen to good people, and with such frequency and such savage intensity? As the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg commented, “If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us.”
Rabbi Kushner’s proposed solution, in his now-famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was to drop the belief in God’s omnipotence: “I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.” Kushner went on to propose: “Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. . . . But we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. . . . A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
The scientific or non-theistic perspective: there is no cosmic purpose or design
From a scientist’s point of view, Kushner’s God (or any version of God, actually) is superfluous, an unnecessary addition to the scientific explanation for the existence of the universe and everything in it. The single most fundamental conclusion of modern science is this: The universe has no inherent purpose or design.
Yes, as counterintuitive as it is, it is indeed fully plausible that the universe and all the complexity and life and consciousness contained within it could in fact have emerged and evolved entirely spontaneously and unguided. How precisely this could happen—how such astonishing and ‘clever’ complexity could have arisen and developed out of fundamental randomness and simplicity (and perhaps ultimately out of nothingness!), is what science is actually all about.
It’s not personal
Once that unambiguous conclusion from science is fully grasped, then the mystery of why bad things happen to good people simply evaporates. It becomes obvious that bad things happen for the same reason anything happens: the same laws of nature that underlie all causes and effects. There is nothing special about the causation of things that we humans judge as “bad.” The question of why bad things happen to good people can be reframed (as Karin’s response to the question posed to her implied): Why would bad things not happen to good people? Or, more simply and crudely put, “Sh*t happens.”
Adopting a secular worldview entails recognizing that meaning and purpose are human attributions and that events do not have inherent purpose—unless of course the event is caused by intentional human action (or the purposeful behavior of some other animal).
The belief that life is random is unsettling, but it can be emotionally liberating. Accepting randomness frees people from excessive self-blame, and in so doing also empowers them.
The Universe Has No Purpose, but We Do
Once we come to terms with the universe’s indifference, we realize more acutely that we have only each other to rely on. There is much we can do to alleviate each other’s suffering when adversity strikes. Our support and empathy toward our fellow human beings in their time of need helps them not only materially but demonstrates to them that they matter and that what happens to them has an emotional impact on us. When we act kindly, it also gives meaning to our own life, as we see that we matter to others.
As a therapist, I often emphasize the personal impact that a suffering patient is having on me in the therapeutic relationship that we form. Some of my cancer patients are facing less lucky outcomes than Karin, and the psychotherapeutic work turns from reassurance or tolerating uncertainty to defining their legacy—how their life has mattered to all the other lives they have touched. I try to express gratitude to them for sharing their life experience with me and for teaching me profound lessons about the human condition. I also assure them that I will pass on the lessons I am learning from them to other patients as well as to my students.
In the ordeal of Karin’s cancer, we were the grateful beneficiaries of very much kindness and caring. This experience confirmed our faith in people.
We all know that there are unfortunately also many uncaring, selfish people. And more disturbingly, there are too many callously brutal people in the world for anyone’s comfort. But fortunately, most people are caring, and the overwhelming majority are capable of caring when they can be taught to relate to other people’s predicament and perspective.
The universe has no purpose, but we do. We give value and meaning to life. People can and do care, even it the universe doesn’t.
By Ralph Lewis MD in Psychology Today