Why do bad things happen?

Yesterday on the Facebook page, we shared a link about how expecting the world to be fair in a way we can understand can lead to a mindset that we should recognize as unhealthy. It leads to blaming victims for their misfortune (because why else would they be suffering and not me?) Today, I want to go where this blog rarely goes and get into a little theology and philosophy. Today I want to dig into the things that happen which humanity must see as tragic; must label as bad, or even evil. Today, I want to talk a little about disease, death, and cruelty.

Unitarian Universalists do not have a unified view on this, and so much of my exposition will be entirely personal. However, UUs tend to favor scientific explanations where such are adequate, and science actually does answer several of these questions as well as, possibly better than, most religions in my opinion. My goal today is to try to offer hope that we can combat these forces, though we cannot expect to ever conquer them.

I will begin with disease, because it is the simplest to explain. Physical illness is most often caused by microbes or parasites. The idea that this is an evil is simply a dysfunction of human thinking: the assumption that humanity is better, greater, or more important than other life. Only humans feel this way, and these kinds of disease are simply proof that even the simplest organisms have their place in creation and some power over their environment. They adapt to use their surroundings and put resources to use in making offspring, just like us. Reproduction, ultimately, is the function of life as we know it. Every creature is essentially a combination of layers of tissue used by their DNA to protect itself and enable continued copying. Viruses and bacterium have developed to take advantage of our bodies, and when they put the replications of our DNA at risk, we get sick. No matter how dire the illness or tragic the outcome, there is no evil in it. All disease is a function of life, as DNA tries to replicate. Even cancer is simply damaged DNA trying to reproduce.

Death, though, is harder to explain. Some creatures reproduce asexually, most (but not all) via cell division, meaning that there is little to no genetic difference between parent and offspring; in bacteria, you often can’t tell them apart at all. This makes such creatures immortal, from a human perspective. Still, this type of immortality is only that of the DNA, and not of any form of thinking being. A genetic clone of yourself would still have different experiences and would therefore be a different person. Death, as we think of it, seems to be a problem faced by complex organisms. So why do we age and die, rather than staying young a vital forever? This is where we must get theoretical, because there is no way to ask our genes, or their author, why we grow old and die. The best scientific explanation, in my opinion, is that it encourages change, innovation, and adaptation. New generations will display a wider variety of traits, and if they are prohibited from mating with the elderly, then it is more likely that those new traits will be preserved and, should they prove useful, be encouraged in later generations. In short, we die because your DNA has figured out that you will hold it back, eventually. You age so that your genes can outgrow you.

The hardest question to address is why there is cruelty and man-made evil, perhaps the only real kind of evil we have yet to encounter as a species. The short answer is because we are all trying very hard to adjust to being rather intelligent monkeys, and that’s hard. Our minds are constantly trying to cope with an understanding that we don’t seem to be wired for. Right now, while you are aware of reading this, your brain is filtering out so much extra information, such as all of the text to either side of this post and most of the noises around you. If you were constantly aware of all the noises that come with modern life, you would probably go mad. You brain does take it all in, but it has ways of filtering it so that you stay sane. At least, most of us have those mechanisms. Some brains don’t work like that; some just never did for some reason. Other brains get injured, either through physical damage or through trying to process things that just don’t compute. Some people are medically ill, needing treatment, because their brains do not work correctly. Some people, in some way, just don’t handle being a self-aware monkey in a socially acceptable way.

Few of them are intentionally cruel. Those that are recognized as being ill clearly don’t mean to hurt others, or don’t understand hurt in the same way. People with mental illness are categorically more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, in fact. Most despots and monsters are sane people who believe they are doing the world some kind of difficult and distasteful favor; they have been led to believe that there is something wrong with some segment of the human race, almost always one they don’t belong to, that requires those people to be oppressed, segregated, or otherwise abused. They misunderstand the world and their place in it, which is not an illness, but certainly a handicap.

In short, people do “bad” things because their brains can’t process the big picture that they’ve been exposed to, and their programming has been corrupted. They need help. They need sympathy and treatment or education. They need to be identified, possibly segregated, and helped to deal with their issues. Humans are not evil, but they are capable of doing evil things to try to make sense of the world around them or to feel safe in a world that doesn’t make sense.

So, my answer to the question of why bad things happen hinges on the realization that “bad things” is a matter of perspective. Certainly, we can agree that some of these things are not great evils, but merely obstacles of the sort humanity has overcome thousands of times. The healthy perspective on others is that some things are wrong and do harm people and even whole communities, but they are also symptoms of a problem in our culture, where some people fall ill and are left to cope with it on their own. They come up with irrational solutions to their problem, much as a person with a hangnail might just rip it off and deal with the bleeding, knowing that the bleeding will stop. They seek to hurt themselves, or to spread their pain to others, in order to see other people deal with it and feel less alone. It is easy to see someone in pain lash out and call them a monster. What is hard is to see them for the person they are, and to recognize that they are not so different from you or I. What is sometimes impossible is to embrace them as a person who has made terrible choices, who needs help to recover, and who might still have something positive to offer the world. There are times when we have to attempt the impossible.

Why do bad things happen? Because good and evil are ultimately simplistic, and despite our desire to see ourselves as crucial to some cosmic plan, above the rest of creation and unique in our abilities, we are simply cogs in the machine of creation. The universe is bigger than we can honestly contemplate and more complex than we might ever be capable of understanding. Being given the wrong glimpse of that cosmic whole, or simply being the unlucky winner of some mutation or chemical imbalance can mean that your perspective never aligns with that of your fellow humans. Evil, then, is a label and coping mechanism, and we can weed it out only with love and education. All else is beyond us except to learn, to adapt, and move on. Our faith tells us that we are capable of that, and compels us to work for that end. There is no otherworldly source for the good and evil in the world; good and evil are human constructs, and we can choose which we build in our lives.

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