This isn’t going to be a fun “good life” column so those of you who expect light-hearted stuff from me can just turn the page.
Today, I got the news that a friend lost her child to a rare disease. This friend lives in America, a country with arguably the best medical facilities in the world. All of which raises the question that we all face at some point in our lives: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Carolyn McCarthy: Campaigning for a cause. AFP
Rabbi Harold Kushner has written a book on this subject; but it too is not without controversy. Critics say that Kushner’s theory that God created this universe without necessarily controlling it offers little solace to those who face tragedy. Kushner says that God may sympathize with our pain but the suffering that we experience is random and unpredictable and we should not hold God responsible for it. In an interview with Time magazine, Kushner has said that given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, he would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around. “I believe that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God’s creatures, is not moral,” he has said. “Nature is blind. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease germs, speeding bullets, they are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it’s a good person or a bad person in their path.” Kushner’s book became a runaway best-seller and touched the lives of many people, so presumably his theory resonated with those that have experienced grief.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each offer their own answer to the question. Hinduism, the religion I know best, says that those that die young have finished their “karma” and reached divinity. In my admittedly limited knowledge of Christian philosophy, I find that it talks about Job and the trials he went through; about using the “bad things” as a path for getting closer to God. In Islam, the most lucid explanation came from a video that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf did for Beliefnet, where he divides bad things into acts of God that you cannot change and hurtful things from other human beings that you can change, mostly by changing yourself. Islam also says that those whose life is snatched away in an untimely manner die the “death of a martyr” and get closer to God.
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But religion can only offer so much solace. Ultimately, I think that when life hurts us, we have to look within ourselves for ways to heal. Grief is raw, it is debilitating but it is also powerful. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road became a Congresswoman who advocated gun-control laws. William Styron, who wrote several wonderful books, including the iconic Sophie’s Choice, battled depression for years and called it “despair beyond despair”. Out of this despair came redemption in the form of his writing.
The point is that while bad things can happen to good people, good can come out of the bad as well. A “bad” event can catalyze a lifelong crusade; or convert a housewife into a politician. But these tend to be intense events: loss of spouse, child or sibling; a child born without a kidney; challenges either physical or mental, all of which can provoke despair that is hard to plumb and heartfelt feelings of “why me?”
In my view, the people that can teach us lessons on how to cope with grief are India’s poor. Let’s take the flip side for a moment. There have been a number of “happiness” surveys and books, each of which seems to overturn the previous finding. Most recently, a Brookings Institution survey claims that the rich — people or countries — are happier than the poor. Earlier studies point out that Philippines, one of the world’s poorest countries scores highest in happiness. The World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam and Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss, come up with themes (ethnic homogeneity promotes happiness, for instance, as in Switzerland) but no definitive conclusion.
India is a wild card with most of these surveys. I suspect that the scientists don’t know how to deal with us. How do you reconcile the bright smiles of abjectly poor children? How do you reconcile the life of my bhutta lady?
Right near Ulsoor Lake in Bangalore is a woman who sells bhutta (corn) from a tiny stand beside a shop named Foto Flash. I chat with this woman occasionally when I wait for my kids’ school bus. Turns out that she has lost her son. He ran away from home and now she doesn’t know where he is, or whether he is dead or alive, which, in some ways, is worse than the death of a child because there is no closure. When you don’t know where or how your child is, whether he is dead or alive, imagination can wreak havoc. I suspect that part of her is numb with grief. Yet, she is there every day to sell corn, to make a living. From a distance, I have observed her laugh with a friend, her face relaxed and, dare I say, peaceful. Is she happy? I don’t know, but she is certainly carrying on, even smiling.
Life hurts people. We all contend with loss — romantic disillusionment, job failure, and the daily pinpricks on our ego that serve to reinforce what the musician Sting calls “how fragile we are”. The trick is to figure out how to come out smiling, if not all the time, at least enough to carry on — like my bhutta lady; like the scores of maids and auto-rickshaw drivers; and the vegetable vendors who grace us with their presence every day; who wake up every morning in abjectly poor circumstances and yet, have the courage and the chutzpah to face the world, to share a laugh while bargaining over the price of tomatoes, to carry on. To live.
Shoba Narayan is unable to come up with a witty footer for this column. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org