Recently two dear friends were inflicted by the soul-searing, heart-rending pain of the deaths of people close to them. One lost her lifelong companion and soul mate, a gentle, good man who lived a good life of 70 years. The other had to say goodbye to her totally innocent newborn son, the victim of a neurological anomaly.
I’ve tried to process these personal tragedies in the context of notorious homicides, including the killing of Ed Thomas, the teacher and coach in Iowa shot by a mentally ill former player, and the murder of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a Florida couple rightly revered for caring for and loving 19 children, including a dozen with special needs.
How can we explain the deaths of the good and innocent? In When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose young son died of a rare disease, shares his struggle to understand undeserved suffering. He found no comfortable answers, thoughtfully discussing and rejecting classic answers, including the ideas that God has a hidden purpose that we cannot and need not understand, that suffering is a test or a lesson, and that God leads our loved ones to a better place.
Rabbi Kushner says he found peace of mind when he gave up the idea that everything that happens to us is caused by or purposely allowed by God, or that everything happens for a reason. It’s futile and foolish to expect the consequences of natural forces and human nature to conform to our notions of fairness. God, he says, doesn’t send us the problem. He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.
The question to ask is not , “Why did this happen?” but “What am I going to do with the life I have?”