Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

I studied Stoicism before it was cool.

Okay, cool might be a bit of a stretch. It has gotten a lot more attention over the last few years, though.

Tim Ferris adopted it as his operating system. Ryan Holliday wrote a book about it that was adopted by pro sports teams. It has even made its way into the financial independence blogosphere.

I learned about Stoicism as a Classical Humanities major in undergrad, because I have always been an impractical nerd.

Despite what the modern usage of “stoic” would suggest, Stoicism is not about being an unfeeling hardass. Instead, it is a philosophy of life designed to try to achieve contentment regardless of what life throws at you.

Stoicism clicks with me because it takes a very rational, no nonsense approach to becoming the best and happiest version of ourselves. As such, I will come back to Stoic concepts from time to time.

Today, I want to focus on the issue raised in the title of this article.

Seneca, who was a Roman philosopher, playwright, and politician is one of the leading Stoic philosophers. In his letter, On Providence, Seneca addresses a friend who has asked why bad things happen to good people.

So why do bad things happen to good people?

They don’t, according to Seneca.

This is not to suggest that you are not as good as you thought, but rather that the “bad things” aren’t actually bad. In his words, “what seem to be evils are not actually such.”

Instead, those “bad things” are tools to make you into a better person.

Strength through adversity

“Without an antagonist prowess fades away,” Seneca tells us. In exercise, you can only build muscle by putting your body under stress. The same goes for people.

The letter uses the example of athletes training for competition. They continue to face off against more talented opponents so that they can improve themselves. An NFL quarterback is going to improve more by facing off against a top notch defense than against a high school team.

(To be clear, the NFL example is mine and not Seneca’s.)

You can only build your skills by facing off against other skilled opponents. In the same way, you can only build your mental and emotional strength by facing adversity. You can only achieve your full potential through being testing and facing obstacles.

“‘I account you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life without an adversary; no one can know your potentiality, not even you.’ For self-knowledge, testing is necessary; no one can discover what he can do except by trying.”

Heroes are born of adversity

Seneca cites to heroes who are only heroic because of their struggles. One example that he uses is Hercules.

Hercules became a hero in the ancient world for his completion of the twelve labors (including the most well known, his conquests of the Hydra and Cerberus). Completing these difficult tasks would certainly be considered overcoming adversity.

But if you are only familiar with the Disney version of Hercules, then you may have missed the adversity that led him to those labors in the first place. Hercules, driven mad by a jealous Hera, murdered his wife and children. That’s some adversity. The labors were just his penance.

(I have never seen the Disney version of Hercules, but judging by my wife’s horrified reaction when I referenced the murder of his wife and kids, Disney appears to have skipped that part.)

Modern heroes become heroes by overcoming adversity as well. Everyone from Harry Potter to Batman. Even Tony Stark, the playboy billionaire, did not become Iron Man until being captured, taking shrapnel to his heart, and creating his famed suit to allow for his survival and escape.

Even real life heroes are born of adversity. Without his having to pilot a flight with both engines disabled by geese, the country would not be idolizing Captain Sully.

“Your good fortune is not to need good fortune.”

Most importantly, though, facing adversity teaches you how to be happy while dealing with adversity. If you have worked through adversity, you know that you can be happy and lead a good life regardless of what life throws at you. People who have not faced adversity are dependent upon continued good luck for their happiness.

Seneca says that people who appear happy, but have not faced adversity have “no solid and genuine happiness, but only a veneer, and a thin one.” These are people that will be rocked and set back by their first stroke of bad luck.

Meanwhile, by facing negative events in your life, you have trained yourself to withstand and overcome such events in the future.

So those “bad things” that happen to you are training you to live your best life, reach your full potential, and maybe even become a hero. Maybe we ought to adjust our perceptions of adversity.

11 thoughts on “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”

  1. This is one of the concepts that I try to bring to work but is difficult to apply at times. I loved playing sports growing up and I thrive in competitive events.

    Unfortunately at times I get bored competing with myself at work. My work is somewhat routine so it’s hard to create stretch goals or even find natural rivals to compete against.

    When there are no rivals for me to compete against I feel like I oftentimes feel less than 100% productive at work.

    Maybe this is a sign to find something a little more challenging 🙂
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    1. That’s a good point. I find that if I am facing competition and adversity in all areas of my life at the same time I get overwhelmed because it is too much to handle all at once. Because of that, I find lulls in the challenge coming from work to be great opportunities to challenge myself in another area of my life – try a new hobby, start an outside project, work on being better at something I enjoy.

      That said, this only really works if the dullness at work is a lull and not just that you have outgrown your position. At that point it may be worth looking for something new if only because you spend such a large portion of your week in the office.

  2. This is a great post, Matt. It’s actually inspired me to finish my own post on a similar topic that I’d nearly forgotten about. I’ll be sure to link back to you as my inspiration for getting it done!

    You’ve also intrigued me re: Hercules. I guess I don’t know the real story – I’ll check it out this weekend. Thanks!

  3. Great post. Bad things aren’t really bad things, it’s just our perspective on it that makes them bad things. I have a friend whose mother beat cancer but during the process, her mother was nothing but positive saying “if I’m not positive, what else would I be?” Cancer is the worst thing that can happen to someone but she didn’t see it as a negative, she just changed her perspective on it which made it not a bad thing. Really changed my perspective on how I view negative things!
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  4. What a thought provoking post, Matt! I have listened to Seneca on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. And I love the quote you included here.

    I have actually thought about this a lot. I often fear I have not faced enough adversity in my life. It may sound crazy, but I’ve had such good fortune, I wonder if I will be able to handle bad fortune appropriately. Sure, I’ve overcome obstacles and faced some trying situations, but is it enough, I wonder, to provide me with what I may need to move forward when the tough times come? Maybe that only makes sense to me…
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  5. I once read that over 90% of Disney princess don’t have a living mother and father. Almost every story involves loss. I think we connect with the struggle and the triumph. It can be hard when life knocks us down to get back up with strength instead of finding our identity as a victim. But when we can, it becomes a source of hope and inspiration to others and allows us to live in a place where we aren’t controlled by our circumstances.

  6. Such a great post you shared! Bad things happen to everyone but time goes. The best part about time is that it never stops even if you are going through the bad days of your life or the good ones. Time is a healer.

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