When Bad Things Happen to Good People

We are continuing our exploration of happiness and philosophy today with a topic that cannot be addressed with science and data.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is a question that is asked often and one that is sometimes used as a suggestion that life is not fair

Seneca, who was a Roman Stoic philosopher, playwright, and politician had a different interpretation.

What Are Bad Things?

So why do bad things happen to good people?

They don’t, according to Seneca.

In his letter On Providence, Seneca addresses a friend who has asked why bad things happen to good people.

His answer challenges our meaning of “bad things.” 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.

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.” 

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. 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 the jealous goddess Hera, murdered his own wife and children. That’s some adversity. The labors were just his penance.

Modern heroes become heroes by overcoming adversity as well. Everyone from Harry Potter to Batman. Without facing unfortunate circumstances we do not become our best selves.

“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.

Join the Conversation!

What do you think? Is adversity an opportunity for growth or something to be avoided at all costs? What is your answer to why bad things happen to good people? Let us know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”

  1. Coincidentally, my father just recently told me that he wishes that I had suffered more from obstacles in life. That my life has gone too smoothly. I believe it was said in the same spirit as your article. But I still felt mildly hurt.
    I agree that in adversity and suffering is where we build strength of character, but I do dread it. It’s a hard mindset to change.
    Jeannie recently posted…2018 Q1 Financial UpdateMy Profile

    1. Agreed completely. You never went to seek out obstacles and struggles, but you also don’t find your best self without them. Over the past couple years I’ve come to believe that the lack of failure in my life means that I am not stretching and trying enough, but it is still hard to push into areas where failure seems likely.
      Matt recently posted…Avoiding Disappointment and Recovering From LossMy Profile

  2. I think of adversity as different from “bad things”.

    I didn’t think of all the things I went through before my 30s as adversity, I thought of it as horrible terrible very bad no good days. Having survived and grown, in retrospect, I suppose I am willing to call it adversity because I wouldn’t be half as tough as I am today without having been challenged over and over and over.

    Maybe the only differentiator is time?

    But yet there’s another aspect that we ignore in this discussion because it doesn’t happen to everyone: you may survive the adversity but the stressors may live with you forever and permanently impact your health. It did mine. I’m not sure knowing I have the strength of character of ten people helps when my broken down body can’t handle normal life.

    I hope that my child chooses to challenge zirself more than is subjected to challenges and sadness, and thus gets to learn zir mettle in a less damaging way.

    1. All fair points and I have no interest in minimizing anyone’s struggles or experiences. I cannot judge anyone else’s situation because I have not lived their experiences. I am writing from a place of minimal instances of bad things happening to me as well as minimal instances of adversity, so take that for what it’s worth.

      To be clear, though, I don’t think we should be rooting for bad things to happen or to be subjected to challenges. The Stoic philosophy is very much centered on the idea of letting go of things that are outside of our control and moving forward in the best possible way. In this scenario it means adjusting to a more optimistic mindset. The things that have happened to us are unchangeable at this point. The permanent effects that they caused are with us regardless of what we do. Given that, let’s learn what we can, appreciate our strength, and try to move forward.

      I like your distinction between choosing to challenge oneself and being subjected to challenges.
      Matt recently posted…Avoiding Disappointment and Recovering From LossMy Profile

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