This was first published on KSL.COM
Thank you for all your wonderful articles. I love them all and the idea that life is a classroom, not a test, has really helped me. I'm wondering what insight you have on the suffering and horrible circumstances some people get in life, by no fault of their own, while others seem to have a classroom that is so much easier. I struggle to see how some trials will ever be a lesson and serve us, when they seem to be just pointless misery with no hope for growth or recovery, like those with horrible mental illnesses. I can see that the people around these people may learn and grow, but what about the people who get these horrible classroom journeys? It really grieves me for people like this and I can’t imagine why God or the universe would want innocent people to suffer so pointlessly. All I can come up with is that might trust, that at some point, probably not in this life, God will make up for the injustices people face. But I wondered what you might say about this.
This is such a good question, one that many wise men, clergy and philosophers have tried to answer for thousands of year. And the truth is, there is no absolute knowable truth on it. It is a mystery of life why bad things happen to good people and why is life often so unfair.
Because there is no ultimate truth on this, you get to choose which, of all the perspective options, would work best in your life and make you the happiest. We are going to give you some of the most common perspective options and explain which ones we like best and why.
Here are some of your options on why life is unfair:
1. You can choose to believe life’s challenges happen randomly to random people, for no real reason.
Stuff just happens. If you choose this perspective, you could decide to learn and grow from whatever happens to you and use it to make you better, but the universe itself doesn’t have a purpose in mind, nor does it influence events.
One of my favorite books on this perspective is Harold Kushner’s book "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." He said, "I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but I can only assume that some natural laws, which we don’t understand are at work. I cannot believe that God 'sends' illness to a specific person for a specific reason. I don’t believe in a God who has a weekly quota of malignant tumors to distribute and consults His computer to find out who deserves one most or who could handle it best.
"'What did I do to deserve this?' is an understandable outcry from a sick and suffering person, but it is really the wrong question. Being sick or being healthy is not a matter of what God decides that we deserve. The better question is 'If this has happened to me, what do I do now, and who is there to help me do it?' It becomes much easier to take God seriously as the source of moral values if we don’t hold Him responsible for all the unfair things that happen in the world."
Now, this is not your only option, it is only one, but many people think this makes sense to them based on their spiritual beliefs. It does not offer much consolation or sense of purpose or meaning in events, but if you choose a positive attitude and make the most of whatever you get, you could still turn challenges into human achievements, you could also face life with some peace and purpose anyway.
2. You can choose to believe in predestination.
This is the theory that our lives are all planned out by a wise higher power, who knows in advance what we will each choose and has a custom classroom experience in mind (ahead of time) for each of us. This makes some people feel like there isn’t freedom or purpose though. If everything is already known ahead of time then what is the point of playing it out?
The positive part is that you could choose to trust a loving higher power that it knows what it’s doing and that in the end, all will be well because he or it is in charge. You will have to see how this option feels to you.
3. You could choose to believe that there is a loving higher power in charge, who has created a universe to be your classroom with forces that work with your choices, moment by moment, to create the perfect classroom journey for each of us.
This would mean there is no predestination, but complete freedom to choose your path, but the universe in its perfect wisdom uses all of our choices to create the exact perfect lessons or opportunities each soul needs to grow and learn (what they are meant to learn here).
This would mean there is both agency, freedom, and also purpose and meaning in everything that happens. Many who choose this philosophy (including Nicole and I) find that it creates a sense of safety in the world, no matter what horrible challenges come, we can trust there is a reason, and that reason is always to serve us. (Though often we have no idea what the reason is.)
This mindset motivates us to rise to the challenges that come and try to make something from them. It also means when bad things happen to good, innocent people, things that make no sense to us, we can still choose to trust that (though we can’t see or understand the purpose) there is one.
We are not going to tell you which of these options (or maybe there are still others you can think of) you should choose. We encourage you to try them on and see what feels the best or most peaceful to you.
We love the story of Viktor Frankl in his books, where he explains his search for answers to this question. He pondered whether he ended up in the concentration camps during World War II, because of random bad luck, or if there was meaning and purpose in his having been captured and dealt with the way he was.
As a psychotherapist, he spent a lot of time watching his mindset and reactions to his situation and pondering what he believed was truth about the predicament. He also decided, at the end of the day, there was no way to know for sure what truth is around this age-old question, and that left him with the choice to choose his perspective.
He tried all the options on though and found when he chose to believe there was purpose, meaning, and reason why things happened (even if he had no idea what that meaning was) he did better mentally. He felt more hope and more inspiration to rise and do something positive with the experience. He went on to write a book about his experience there called "Man’s Search for Meaning" that has been named one of the most influential books ever written, and in which you could read more about his story.
We have played with these options ourselves, and we have found that the idea of seeing life as a classroom and the universe as a wise teacher constantly conspiring to educate and grow us, and has brought comfort and peace to us when our lives have been unfair.
People often say, in the comments to these articles, something to the effect of, "These coaches surely have no idea how hard and painful life really is." I want to assure you that our journies have not been easy ones. Many might say we have had more than our fair share of problems and pains.
So we can say, from experience, when life’s challenges feel terribly unfair, it brings great peace if we choose to believe the universe has delivered this problem for the express purpose of making us better, stronger or more loving in some way (or to help those around us to do the same). When we choose option three, life feels better.
When terribly tragedy happens to people around us though, and we watch others suffer, I don’t think we should ever feel OK or peaceful about their suffering. We should feel pain and sorrow for and with them, it would be wrong not to.
Imagine how wrong it would be to justify their suffering saying, "Oh that’s their perfect classroom, they are fine and this is perfect for them." We are supposed to feel horrified at the suffering of others and have great sympathy for them, pray for them, reach out to help and offer compassion. I think this is why — we aren’t supposed to know the ultimate answer to your question. If we did, we may no longer mourn with those that mourn and feel their pain.
We encourage you to play with your options above and find the one that works best for you, while at the same time continue to hold onto the beautiful empathy you feel toward all those who struggle.
You can do this.
Master Life Coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham are human behavior experts, coaches and speakers. You can learn more about them at www.12shapes.com and www.claritypointcoaching.com. Make sure you see their two amazing books here.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.