The Problem of Good
This ‘experiment” grew out of my studies on the problem of pain and human suffering. The questions flow like this:
“Think of the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life”.
“OK, now think of the next worst thing that ever happened to you”.
“Now the next”.
“And the next”.
“And the next…” [This is repeated at least ten times.]
Around number 6 or 7 people start to smile. It is odd to see because we are asking about horrible events in people’s minds; the smile tends to result from the fact that folks can’t think of many things.
I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone get to more than ten things (even while teaching in an underground school in the Stalinist dictator, Ceausceau’s Romania; or in Khartoum, Sudan teaching Southern Sudanese refuges all of who had been tortured or seen friends and relatives tortured).
I think it might be possible for people to have twenty or thirty things, but even that list is small compared to the good we experience in life].
Next, ask people to think about the good things they have experienced in life; to remember the times they have beheld something beautiful. To remember the times they have laughed; the times they have experienced pleasure (of a good conversation, a good meal, a good cup of coffee, etc.). To remember the times they received a gift; the times they gave a gift and knew that that act made somebody else happy; the times they took a breath without pain or slept with a roof over their head, etc.
I realize that this second list is feeding information to help the listener think through the vast number of places he or she has experienced good and I usually note that I didn’t do it with the first list. Nevertheless, our own experiences confirm that the bad we have suffered is like errant brush strokes painted across a huge canvas of good.
Sometimes I point to the first joint of my index finger on my right hand and mention that once that finger was cut through to the bone. The percentage of my body affected was far less than one percent; nevertheless, that relatively small part of my body, when the injury occurred, got all of my attention because it was painful. Even so, we do not want to inflate the suffering we endure, nor do we want to discount the intensity of the pain of any single bad event.
After this inferential development of thought, I like to ask people to: “Think back on that list of bad things in their life. How many, given time, saw some good come from some of the bad things on their list. Either, the bad was resolved; or, unresolved, you saw some good come from the difficulty (you grew wiser or matured through the experience in some way, increased in your capacity for empathy at the sufferings of others, etc.).” Everyone I say this to, without exception (so far), has testified to good coming from some of the bad in their lives GIVEN TIME.
I mention that I have eight things on my list of bad events and that five of the bad events did produce good in retrospect. Again, I am not saying all were resolved but I grew through them and found some degree of good through the suffering.
Then I ask, “If, GIVEN TIME, you saw good come from some things you’ve suffered then you have good reason to believe that, GIVEN ETERNITY, good could possibly come to all of the things you’ve suffered.
Furthermore, you have no good reason to say that no good could ever come from a bad thing you might currently be enduring; your own experience counts against such a judgment.
Nevertheless, if someone tells us that he or she believes no good could ever come from some painful thing in life, we give that person lots of grace because he or she is hurting. Our own experience also tells us it is right to extend grace and understanding towards the suffering of others because it is what we would want when we are hurting. However, our experience also tells us not to take too seriously the statement no good could come from a current bit of suffering; it is not a valid argument, even though it accurately expresses our anguish in the moment.