Actually, I don’t really know the answer to this, but I have heard a lot of answers, and today I want to tell you about the bravest one I’ve heard so far.
It was this weird, completely offhand thing. The person saying it was my advisor in graduate school. He is an ethnomusicologist who studies Jewish music and, as it happens, a rabbi. I know he is observant: he both leads and attends services, is knowledgeable about his tradition, and chose to do his research within it. But I don’t know what his personal religious feelings are, not even what he believes about God.
I don’t even remember how it came up: we were in a class on music in the Jewish tradition, I think, in a beautiful room at Tufts with a hardwood floor and the sun streaming in through the skylights. Jeff reminded us of the problem of evil: how can bad things happen to good people when there’s a compassionate God out there?
This was his answer: They just do.
The reason this impressed me so much is that this guy had every pat answer that faith traditions have ever provided available to him. God works in mysterious ways. We’re being tested. Everything happens for a reason. It’s all for the best. He had that all at his fingertips, every easy cop-out in the book, and he didn’t take any of them. Instead, he chose a difficult answer, one that is as full of integrity as it is of uncertainty. I respect that.
There is nothing in the world wrong with developing our own understandings of the universe and how it works based on our personal, subjective experience of it. When we draw comfort from those understandings, it’s wonderful. In this case, though, I draw more comfort from Jeff’s honesty — they just do, I don’t know why — than from answers that might feel easier on the surface. My discomfort with this answer mirrors my discomfort with the suffering of good people: I don’t personally believe that the universe is cold, but that it is alive, beautiful, incomprehensibly complex, and, if not in any human way, somehow compassionate. And I do not think it is right or fair that bad things should happen to good people.
This is the value of Jeff’s answer: it owns that paradox. That makes it an answer I could give to a friend with a sick kid. It’s an answer I repeated to myself when my dad was hooked up to beeping things and barely conscious in a hopsital. It doesn’t try to erase or ignore the basic problem that bad things do happen to good people, or even to make it more comfortable, but simply acknowledges it as being the way things sometimes are. And that is powerful.