Why Do Bad Things Happen? (Part 1)

As the blame game continues to engulf politics, with neither side agreeing on any measure to get the country out of trouble, except for trivial half measures, one thing is obvious. You can’t figure out how to fix bad tings until you know why they happened. This applies to society but also to our personal lives. Bad things cause pain, suffering and confusion. They overturn the rhythm of normal life. Fear and anger surface, breaking apart a person’s emotional picture of reality. By “emotional reality” I mean the assumption that your existence can be calm, secure, prosperous, and unthreatened. Different as they are, a terrorist attack, bankruptcy, and a diagnosis of cancer are all bad things that create the same responses inside us.

The way to meet bad things is complicated. Being inconvenienced at the airport in the name of national security isn’t the same as pursuing cancer treatment or rebuilding your credit record. Yet there are similarities. Bad things need to be countered by returning, if possible, to a calm sense of normality where the pursuit of happiness is possible once more. Words like acceptance, balance, healing, community, compassion, justice, and security come to mind, but they are generic. Each bad thing is personal, no matter how vast the scale.

So, looking at it personally, why do bad things happen?

Let me sketch some answers and connect them with fix-its that might work along with those that won’t help at all.

Accidents: Some bad things are random. Auto accidents, sudden illness, and acts of God like tornadoes and floods fall into this category. In modern times, when science explains the universe and evolution through random chance – even “the accidental universe” has been proposed – people are more aware of chance occurrences than at any time in the past. In an age of faith, almost nothing was random. God had his reasons for even the slightest of misfortunes, and the larger ones, like the Black Death, were enormous acts of God, a phrase that meant divine retribution, not our current usage, where acts of God are mindless natural events.

When bad things happen by accident, we should feel no personal responsibility; morality lets us off the hook; there is no blame to pass around. But in reality the emotional freight is huge. Accidents remind people of how helpless they are. They instill survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress. The very unpredictability of accidents is what frightens us, and therefore, to regain a sense of control, our psyches thrash around, often in a panicked state, until we concoct an answer to fill the void.

Even as everyone around you keeps repeating “It’s not your fault,” when a bad thing happens, you can’t rest easy until you satisfy the unconscious need to explain the inexplicable. Why did burglars hit the house next door and not mine? Why did I survive the roadside bomb and not my buddy? Accidents throw us into strange and uncanny emotional territory. This leads to a schizoid division between rational understanding, which knows that tornadoes and bombing deaths are random – and emotional instability, which finds random events the most stressful kind. Repairing this self-division is the primary way to deal with bad things that are accidental.

What works: The first step is to be aware that you are fighting an inner war between reason and emotion. The second step is to realize that both sides are right, even though they are in conflict. The third step is to give both sides their due. The fourth step is to inform both sides that neither is going to win the battle. The fifth step is to find a place inside that isn’t at war, a place where you feel safe, complete, and no longer agitated.

What doesn’t work: constant repetition of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Relying on reason as a means of tamping down emotions, using repression, suppression, denial, avoidance, and distractions. Using emotion as a way to act out helplessness through panic, hiding from the world, isolation from family and friends, spiraling depression, victimization, and other negative emotional states that display a lot of action but never find an escape route.

It’s not as if we lack knowledge about post-traumatic states. Everything I’ve touched on is taught in Therapy 101, but making these steps personal isn’t easier just because you — or a therapist, counselor, or minister – knows how to analyze what’s going on. Self-awareness is the key, and it moves in different directions with every passing hour. Feeling safe one minute and panicked the next, at peace today but devastated tomorrow, keeps a person from any sense of control and normalcy. Without an anchor of objectivity, the healing process becomes chaotic and thus fuels the threat of randomness that is the problem you are trying to solve. The situation calls for a place of stability inside, however difficult that place is to find. Self-awareness if fluid, yes, but it rests upon a solid foundation known as the core self.

The reason that accidents and random disasters affect some people far more than others goes back to how secure they are in their core self. It’s not the only reason; we have to leave room for factors that are mysterious or unknown, perhaps even unknowable. (Sometimes we are faced with tragic irony, as i the recent sad stories about the trapped Chilean miners whose rescue made world news; a year later they face major psychological problems of depression, divorce, the inability to hold a job, and so on, all the marks of a mind that cannot come to grips with randomness but will never cease struggling against it.)

Finding your core self isn’t a mystery. The following steps are the most helpful, even though some may seem tangential to self-awareness – they set the stage of it anyway:

– Keep close to family and friends. Restore your daily routine. Do the external things necessary to fit into the rhythm of everyday life.

– Connect with other people who have gone through your situation. Become familiar with the various stages of healing. Look for support from those who know the lay of the land. Don’t isolate yourself.

– Be easy on yourself. Forgive your relapses into obsessiveness or panic. Be patient with the mind’s healing process and its ups and downs. Don’t believe in your worst moods; take the attitude that they are steps of normalization, not personal weakness or failure.

– Don’t trust the voice of fear. See fear as one emotion among many, not a reliable guide to danger. When fear and anxiety become strong, resist the urge to hide and disguise your feelings. Exposing fear to the light of day is one of the best ways to counter it.

— Take meditation and stress release seriously. The core self lies deeper than the level of moods, emotions, rationalizations, and defenses. Those layers are thick; we are used to inhabiting them. We aren’t used to seeking the source of the self in consciousness. To find the core self requires two things: actually experiencing it and removing the obstacles that mask it.

— Realize that distress creates a fog of illusion. The illusion can be so powerful that you feel fated to be unsafe, threatened, confused, and self-divided. Actually, these are all false states. Do everything you can to reach clarity, and the first step is to know that clarity is possible.

– Experiment with different avenues of healing. Conventional medicine is of minimal use, since the system is set up to offer short doctor’s visits followed by a pat on the back and a prescription. The healing arts cover a vast field, and there is wisdom out there that you should seek to take advantage of. Don’t give up early or easily.

Ultimately, the bad things that happen to us by random chance belong to the texture of life. They aren’t a sign that you have been singled out or cursed. They don’t indicate that you have sinned or that God hates you. The fact that we react so drastically to accidents reveals something deeper, that the texture of normal life is a thin layer of security, beneath which deeper waters stir. We will discuss those deeper waters in the next post.

(To be continued)

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle