A woman was walking down the hallway past my counseling office after she had seen Linda, the message therapist. My office door was open so I heard the lady remark, “Everything happens for a reason, my friend.” The certainty built into her response was comforting to me. However, I began wondering if her statement was really accurate.
Sometimes traumatic things happen because of our own laziness and stupidity. Case in point is Plaxico Burress, former wide-receiver for the New York Giants, who allegedly carried an illegally purchased loaded weapon in his pocket into a New York City night club. The gun fell out of his pocket, fired in the VIP section of the bar as the bullet grazed his leg and eventually lodged in the building wall. Burress immediately left the establishment, gave the gun to a teammate and later lied to the police regarding his whereabouts during the discharge of the weapon. He also made up an alias at the hospital in an attempt to protect himself from arrest.
Whenever we create our own suffering, we need to accept the logical consequences of our behavior. There is a reason for our distress, and it is imperative to learn from our mistakes so that we do not repeat the same worn out patterns of behavior. Burress was prosecuted for violating a city statute regarding illegal firearms possession and lying to police to cover up his crime. He was sentenced to jail and served his time.
Most of us are able to discern God’s handiwork in the fabric of life. When we think about the intricacies and complexity of the human body, or the majesty of magnificent mountain peaks, we are left with the conclusion that a Creative Designer was at work. What other plausible explanation exists for the wondrous mystery of childbirth or the intriguing process associated with the death of loved ones?
Many of life’s tragedies are not caused or influenced by the sufferer’s mistakes. These horrific events leave us feeling breathless and mystified. As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, there is often a random quality connected to the nature of the universe. Simplistic explanations to account for many of life’s most difficult trials and tribulations leave us feeling empty as we long to make sense out of the perplexing nature of events.
Years ago, I attended Victor Frankl’s presentation about his story, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s family members were the tragic victims of the Holocaust. Frankl stressed that life’s meaning was not embedded in the senseless, horrific events he encountered, but in his response to them. Frankl said, “When everything around me was lost, all I had left was my attitude about what was happening.” This was the foundation upon which he built his psychotherapeutic theory called Logotherapy.
Rabbi Harold Kushner explored how he lost his young son Aaron to a disease which dramatically escalated the aging process. Kushner claimed that many congregants, with good intentions, made comments that shook his faith to the core. They proclaimed, “Maybe God is trying to teach you a lesson through this experience.” Others stated, “Your child is in a happier place now: you should rejoice.” The assumption held by his parishioners was, “God has a hand in your suffering and there is something that He wants to teach you by allowing it.” Kushner maintained that nothing he might learn from tragedy was worth the unfortunate loss of a child.
Just as we converse about random acts of kindness, I believe that life brings us random encounters with horror. God does not control man’s choosing between good and evil. Certainly He identifies and is aroused by the tears and pain of life’s challenges, but there is nothing He chooses to do to prevent natural disasters and unjust suffering. I believe that it is simplistic to conclude that somehow our Creator has a reason and purpose for the activity of random tragedy; and that someday we will understand that the unfolding of these events happened for our benefit.
The meaning of unjust tragedy is not in the event, it is in our response to the event. John Walsh, who authored America’s Most Wanted program, created meaning out of his child’s brutal abduction and killing by hunting down criminals. He never gave up hope that they would find his son’s killer and he spent his life in service to other families who were victims of random acts of violence and exploitation. Thankfully, his family has received some closure.
When undeserved, random suffering causes pain, it is God who is there to pick us up, cradle us and provide affirmation. Our meaning is found as we allow our God to soothe and recreate our lives. No one should trivialize suffering by offering meaningless, misguided platitudes, but by providing support and encouragement in our time of need.
Not everything happens for a reason. To suggest God’s involvement in unwarranted tragic events trivializes our experience with trauma and suggests that God chooses to control every strand of human activity. It is not always comforting, but far more honest to admit that we don’t know for sure why certain things happen. Nevertheless, God promises to be on the other side of our grief and loss.