Updated: Sep 25, 2022
One afternoon Bryce and I found ourselves in a rather seedy and rundown café, discussing a topic that I had previously explored with my mother: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why, since God loves us, should there be so much suffering in the world?
We were seated at a table on which some previous guest had spilt sugar – whether recently or even days ago we could not tell. As we chatted, my down-at-heel, unemployed philosophic friend was absent-mindedly pushing crystals of sugar into random shapes with his thumb. My amusement with his patient sugar ‘construction’ made him suddenly aware of what he’d been doing and he laughed and then began to tell me a story about another time, and another table, where he’d also been playing with fallen sugar.
He said he hadn’t paid much attention to his actions at the time until he noticed a small ant running about distractedly at the farthest end of the table, searching for food scraps. Recognizing that there was plenty of food for the ant to enjoy if it could just make its way across the table top, he patiently followed the ant’s erratic path with a hovering hand. Each time the ant veered off course and away from the unsuspected sugar bounty waiting at the far side, he would plant his big thumb in its path. The ant would run headlong into his thumb and be deflected into a path that would take it closer to the sugar.
This was quite a time-consuming process and after a while he began to imagine the irritation the little creature must be feeling as it collided with one obstacle after another, seemingly to no purpose. He imagined the ant beginning to feel quite irritated and then, as the obstacles continued, the irritation would turn to anger and eventually to overwhelming frustration, despair and futility. The ant had no way of knowing that each seemingly arbitrary obstacle was really the intervention of an unseen force that had the ant’s true well-being at heart or that, with each apparent misfortune, the object of its search was drawing ever closer.
That’s pretty much been the story of my own life: running headlong into painful obstacles. I was the despair of my headmistress at school, and of my Bible Class teacher at church. I won’t list all the disasters here because I’ve embarrassed my parents enough already, so you’ll just have to trust me. But I’ve grown up enough now to know that running into painful obstacles is not that exceptional after all. Now I’m old enough to look back and recognise that it was those very experiences that taught me the most valuable life lessons. With the development of spiritual maturity I increasingly recognized that the very purpose of those unwanted life events was to draw my attention to what I most needed to learn, and to guide me towards the very thing my heart most deeply longed for.
I know that Bryce’s brief experience with that little ant had made a profound impression on him, for he had seen his own life in the journey of the ant, who was not able to appreciate that each barrier it ran into was in reality guiding it to the very object of its search. For the first time he recognized a purpose in many of the considerable adversities he had encountered in his own life. He could see that each episode had been especially designed for him and him alone, to help him to grow and develop, to lead him to a recognition of the purpose of his creation and in the process to identify and acquire the spiritual qualities that would be needed for him to successfully fulfil his divine purpose on this plane.
This process of encountering the challenges in our lives is just like the various activities I planned as a teacher; like all the stories, activities, experiments, quizzes and puzzles that I presented to my previous class – also 12-13 years old but with average or above IQ - pupils, knowing that as they worked to find solutions and answers, they would be growing in knowledge and wisdom. By comparison, for my special class I would plan for sunny strolls up to the village shops, observing road rules and courteously greeting the shop owners, and collaborating to select, purchase and pay for each of the ingredients required on our return to class where a small kitchen and facilities enabled us to prepare simple recipes like pancakes or toasties. On another day we would take the short walk to my flat and carry out tasks like weeding and planting the small garden, or using a vacuum cleaner and attending to the many other simple tasks that would be required by these children as they grew older. Frequently when other pupils in our school heard about our ‘lessons’ they were envious and resented the activities of my special class which they considered unfair, unjust and unkind.
Even some teachers considered my work ‘cushy’, but only those who had never seen the endless patience and kindness it required, or the wisdom in responding to frequent violent outbursts from strong 13 year old boys with the emotional skills of a 5 year old. But I knew that this apparent injustice in the eyes of other pupils, the apparent ease of my children compared with the challenges of others, was in reality an outcome of their greater gifts and capacities; qualities that the special class children wished they too possessed. So that is what I think about in my work as a counsellor, when I learn of the great burdens some people have to face in their lives compared with the relative ease and comfort of others.
Some life lessons are fun and appealing. Some are confronting and difficult. However, I have grown old enough and wise enough to realise that this process is true for both our material and spiritual education; in responding with strength, patience and determination to adversity, we stretch and expand our present capacity, and uncover innate powers and hidden gifts that we may otherwise have never discovered. Bryce has passed on now but I know he’d agree with me that, although it’s really tough at the time, we wouldn’t have missed a moment of it.
So, getting back to that original query of ‘Why do bad things happen to good people? Why, since God loves us, should there be so much suffering in the world?’, in spiritual terms, tests and difficulties may outwardly appear as ‘bad’ but in reality they carry precious lessons.
“O Son of Man! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.” - Bahá’u’lláh
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