Why do tragedies happen?

Tragedies keep raising the question– why do they happen?

There is a discussion in today’s WashingtonPost.com titled, “Arizona Shootings:  Why did God allow it?

The post is interesting; but the comments are especially interesting – and there are at least a couple of hundred.  Some people take it as an opportunity to debate whether God exists.   That debate is not so interesting.  And that debate could have been prevented by asking the question in a belief-neutral way:

“Why is life so full of suffering for so many?”

Whether you believe in God or not, the two questions are really the same.

And people’s answers to this question are what interested me the most.  There were so many different ways to answer it – and so many similar ways to answer it.  Each answer represented a personal, spiritual, or logical, or thoughtful, mystical, or philosophical, or social activist … perspective, on a question everyone has thought about, and that some keep thinking about, each time reminded of suffering — especially suffering that affects us all as a national or on a global scale.

We think about it, because even for those who don’t believe in God, the idea of so much suffering can raise doubts and despair – or anger or bewilderment at the seemingly wanton nature of being alive in a violent universe. Even people who don’t believe in God are looking for meaning in life – and since life includes suffering: Why? What is the purpose?

And yet, if intense suffering is caused by ‘accidents’ many are able to understand, or at least to accept. Whether religious or non-religious, we can accept suffering as part of life, because we are smart enough, and well developed enough to deal with suffering when it occurs, and otherwise, to enjoy what life has to offer – including most of all, being with other people.   But sometimes, even the “strongest” of us get too much of suffering, and then we are really in need of the help of others, or a long period before taking up our lives again near where we left off .

But when wanton suffering is caused by people, with apparent intention, it seems to be particularly wrenching even for those only  reading about it.

This tragedy was caused by a mentally ill person. But what about other tragedies such as terrorist killings and criminal acts? We somehow don’t think of those perpetrators as “mentally ill” – instead, we think of them as criminals, people who are immoral, or full of hatred and deeply misguided. And yet those terrorists and criminals are in fact created by mentally ill – or at least what you could call extremely stressed – cultures in which they are raised, or groups to whose messages they are vulnerable.

Our “mainstream” society in America does not intentionally nurture terrorism. We also of course oppose crime. And yet, our society does have the potential to prevent much of the mental illness that now occurs, and the potential to prevent immense rage, and depraved, stupid thinking, and all manner of suffering in our cities and neighborhoods.  It is a matter of taking better care of each other, by better funding for our care-giver institutions and professionals, and by our own efforts in our communities.  We can’t get rid of all suffering, but we can definitely do better than turn people away from needed care and sustenance.

Why aren’t we doing a lot better? Because it’s too expensive??   How much does it cost to let suffering grow?

Maybe, after all, that’s a better question to be asking than “Why is there suffering?”   (And you may have noticed, I didn’t really give an answer to that question.)


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