When Bad Things Happen…

In the fall of 1981, when my first book, Somewhere Child, about the abduction of my baby daughter by her father, was published by Viking Press in New York, a conservative rabbi in Massachusetts named Harold S. Kushner, driven by the death of his fourteen-year-old son Aaron from the rare genetic disease progeria, published the revolutionary inspirational guide, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which became a bestseller.

I say “revolutionary” because Kushner’s book held the power to cause a dramatic shift in people’s thinking. Millions of people, in fact; it’s sold over four million copies. The idea that bad things could happen to good people was, especially in those days, antithetical to large swaths of “good” people who believed down deep that bad things were meted out as punishments by God to “bad” people for their bad deeds: People got what they deserved in life.

Growing up in a nice little town in northern New Jersey, and living most of my life in the United States, I came to know many good people from good families who went to good schools and lived in good homes and drove good cars and had good jobs and ate at good restaurants and wore good clothes and enjoyed good health and liked to gloat, “Life is good,” who credited their good fortune to their own good decisions. The less fortunate, in their view, as far as I could tell, were to be at best pitied, at worst blamed, for their misfortune or their bad judgment.

Having lived nearly nine years in Africa, I can say this is not the prevailing attitude there, and because of this I felt more at home in Africa than I’ve ever felt in the States.  Africans – especially the vast majority of Africans on the ground, where I lived – know hardship and misfortune well. For them, life is good some days and clearly not so good others. No one is to blame for this; it’s just the way life is. I never heard an African cry, “Woe is me!” or “Why me?” because, I think, the universal understanding was – and likely still is: Life is difficult for everyone at times. We all must roll with it.

Similarly, I’ve observed in my seven years here in Mexico that Mexican people are realistic about the ups and downs of life as well. The Mexicans I’ve come to know are among the most tolerant, resilient, and nonjudgmental people I’ve ever met.

Recently I’ve been reminded that in the twelve years that my daughter was missing, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I had a few nice, long-term boyfriends from good families who wanted to marry me. But when each of their mothers, in slow succession, learned my story – that my ex-husband had absconded with my daughter — they put an end to their beloved son’s plans. If something so bad had happened to me, they reasoned, clearly I must be a bad person underneath the pretty face, not worthy of joining their good family and tarnishing their good name. They forbade their son from marrying me.

Ultimately – or should I say consequently — I chose to stay happily single. The state of wedded bliss, if such a state exists, is now as foreign to me as Africa is to most gringos.

This week, in the midst of the turmoil of packing to move again within San Miguel due to unforeseen, unfortunate circumstances, and not knowing quite where to go next, I’ve been reading rabbi Kushner’s first book — he’s since written more than a dozen — When Bad Things Happen to Good People and deriving comfort from it. He writes in an early chapter:

“The idea that God gives people what they deserve, that our misdeeds cause our misfortune, is a neat and attractive solution to the problem of evil at several levels, but it has a number of serious limitations.

“As we have seen, it teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.”

In times of tumult, like now, when it’s tempting (but pointless) to moan, Why am I going through this AGAIN? and When will this roller coaster ride END?, I’m finding that loving, compassionate friends – and this wise rabbi’s soothing book – have become my salvation. I’m feeling deeply grateful. And even, surprisingly, hopeful.

34 thoughts on “When Bad Things Happen…”

  1. Dearest BB, you are remarkable! and full marks to Rabbi Kushner for being your resiliance. (I’ll read it – promise!)

  2. That ancient concept of guilt is still around – even if hidden beneath the surface. Witness so many self-help guides who attribute our illnesses to our thoughts and emotions. “It’s your fault.” I found myself a victim of this ancient Judeo-Christian idea when I needed back surgery. Or when my neck started hurting. It took me quite awhile to recognize how that concept of “fault” creeped in so automatically.

  3. Dear BB. Strangely enough, I had a similar sad situation develop in my 20s, continuing on to my 30s, due to actions within my family of origin, that caused me to be “marked,” by the very religious people that I was associating with at the time, with exactly the same result ~ to a life of singleness (a surprisingly happy life). I have learned the truth of what you are saying, and although I have spoken of it with others, they have always been deeply entrenched in the idea that life’s trials are punishments. I lost religion, but I did not lose God or my joy in life. * How refreshing to have you discuss it, at a time when things are difficult for you. I will read this book. Please know that you are valued and I, along with many others, wish you all good things, a safe and happy home, good health, good friends, and some solid stability, at this time of life. You deserve it, as do all who live. Best wishes, Bonnie Lee Black. Philia.

    1. Dear Bri — How kind of you to write this. I hesitated to write what I did for this blogpost, but your generous comment has made me glad I did. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your similar experience and for all your good wishes. I wish the same for you. — BB

  4. I believe that “bad things” happen to us in our lives to provide us the opportunity to develop resilience, character, and most importantly, compassion. I also believe that -for want of a better description- “Karma” sends us the tools and people to help us deal with these bad things. One needs to simply be open to “recognising” what has been presented to us.
    I was describing the Jacaranda trees in full bloom in Sydney, to a pen friend in the United States. He in response, reflected on the beauty of these trees when he had lived in Salisbury, Rhodesia. When I googled Salibusry, to learn more about that place, your February 2022 Blog came up, and I was drawn in to read your words. You are a beautiful writer. Your life has honed your outlook and your words paint visually. Embrace your trials Bonnie, because you have not only developed into a remarkable human being, but I believe you shine your light on many, and help them feel empowered and enriched by your existence. How wonderful that you were able to experience the different outlook of other cultures! What healing of your soul it must have offered! I don’t know where your journey is leading you, but there must be a reason for it, that you are as yet, unaware of. Because of the person that you have become, I believe you will deal well with whatever is thrown your way. Best wishes and deep gratitude for your sharing of your thoughts and experiences. They do make a difference. Loula

    1. Oh, Loula! Your words have touched me deeply. I think I’ll reread your kind comment every day from now on, to give me the daily boost I need to keep going! 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to write this and for all your goodness and encouragement. By the way, the book I mentioned in this blogpost, Somewhere Child, is about my experience in Salisbury, Rhodesia. Perhaps your friend would like to know about it. — Deepest thanks, Bonnie

  5. My darling BB! This post fills my heart with sadness and joy. I wanted to call you immediately or write you more personally to connect and support, encourage and cheer you on. I’d admittedly missed your previous post so this one came as quite a shock. But knowing all the love surrounding you, who am I to think I’m special enough or different from all the admirers who do the same. I’m sorry about this move. Yes, change is good, but moving is disturbing on every level, as you say, us older birds create our nests without thinking we ultimately are forced to abandon them. I feel your pain. Moving in April after 15 years of nesting was more traumatic than I thought, and believe me, I thought it would be bad. What it brought up was more than I was capable of taking on. The good news is we’re in a better place and while it’s not quite feeling like ‘home’ yet, I trust in time it will.
    If I could twitch my nose like Bewitched used to allow Samantha to do, I’d be there in an instant to give you a great big hug for starters, then stand beside you and help in any way I could: pack, cook, make you laugh and dance, chat, move you out and into your next nest. My heart hurts thinking of you doing it alone. I wish there were something I could do to help. When you’re ready to talk or need anything at all that I can manage from afar, you know I’d do whatever I can.
    I love you so much, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of you. You’ve taught me so much, given me more than you know and will always be my angel. Wishing you all the strength you’ll need as you journey on. Sending love and all good thoughts every day. Love you. xoxo, MM

    1. My darling MM. I’m speechless. These loving words from you have given me so much. (What did I do to deserve you?) Thank you, thank you, thank you. And bless you! I’m be fine. Not to worry. — xoxoxoxox

  6. Dear Bonnie! Magnificent! Inspiring and deeply true… I often think I could tell the exact same stories of my life as a tragedy or as the sweetest story of moving through whatever this blessed opportunity of life delivers with joy, tears, giggles, friends- and poetry! Every step a prayer! Every step with gratitude and something yummy!
    Thank you for this!

  7. A beautifully written and meaningful blog. When Bad Things Happen To Good People, was a favorite of mine and I wish I had that copy, all underlined and circled. Alas It was gone in one of my moves. Thinking of you as you move through this narrow place .May you find a cozy, quiet and soothing new space in which to continue your creative life.

  8. ¡Buena suerte! I’d love to meet you next week when I’m in town. I’ve been enjoying your blog a lot. I first came to SMA in 1990 on a train and have been returning every spring and fall since then. If you don’t have time to meet, I understand.
    Anne Boone Johnson

    1. Nice to hear from you, Anne. I’m so glad you like my blogposts. Thank you for your understanding about not being able to meet. Things are quite stressful now, and I also have a friend coming to visit later in the week. Next time!

  9. Dear Bon,
    The idea that success stems from God’s favor is just another canard that allows the powerful to maintain their position and keeps the poor and underprivileged in their place. Where exactly does Jesus say, “Blessed are the wealthy overlords.”?

  10. I wish you nothing but good things and I truly hope that you find where you belong, a home that will bring you joy and peace. You sound like an amazingly strong, accomplished woman. You go girl !!!

  11. I have always been dismayed when anyone declares, “God was watching over me,” as when a 9/11 survivor suggests God specifically chose him to survive – a callous insult to all the innocent souls who perished. Your elegant post reminds us that no one is specially favored or cursed by any omnipotent power. Life is random and mysterious.

    1. Yes, Catherine, “random and mysterious.” This is essentially what Rabbi Kushner has to say, which is so refreshing to hear from a “man of God.” Thank you for your feedback/input. I really appreciate it.

  12. As a serious yoga practitioner over many decades who accepts the worldview of most people in the Orient, it is nevertheless very difficult to wrap my head around the concepts of karma and reincarnation. I do so as a “ working hypothesis” rather than a confirmed “ belief”
    . In this context, I have come to regard all that comes to me, “ good” or “bad”, as self created manifestations of actions I did in the past, recent or distant. I reject the whole Judeo-Christian notion of guilt and sin, and instead see people, places and events that come to me as something I’ve either earned or need for further growth. I find this approach helps me to take more responsibility for my life, and indeed, is ultimately empowering.

  13. Such a heartfelt post, Bonnie querida! But what a sad, odd notion, to consider life’s problems as punishments! Not something I ever heard of growing up in Cuba. Muchos abrazos

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