Why bad things can’t happen to good people

Get your armchairs ready, today’s post is a bit philosophical. However, it ties into those ongoing, long-term challenges in our lives and we hope to those in your life too. We’ll be questioning the age-old question of “why do bad things happen to good people”?

In Stoic Philosophy this question itself would be considered a fallacy. In the conclusion of his book “A Guide to Stoicism”, author St. George Stock provides a helpful interpretation of the Stoic position on good and bad. The main assertion is that there is no good but virtue, and no evil but vice.

Stock clarifies “A great many things that are commonly called evil may and do happen to good people in this life” but “the only evil that can never befall a good person is vice, because that would be a contradiction in terms.”

A good person by the Stoic definition is virtuous – someone who controls his or her own expectations in life, has the wisdom to understand that unhappiness and other negative emotions stem from false expectations, and lacking this impulse, does not suffer or cause others to suffer.

This makes sense on the day to day scale we’ve analyzed earlier in our blog series. There is not a well-founded reason to get upset about a car cutting us off in traffic, or to feel insulted by another person’s ignorance. But how does this philosophy apply to more macroscopic conditions – acts of nature, sickness, the economic climate? Most of us have been in a position where we have felt that world is being unfair on account of one of these conditions.

For Min and I there are a few. A family member became suddenly critically ill without obvious cause and effect, and for our own personal planning, we feel we have been priced out of Vancouver’s housing market after making a big transition to base our lives here late last year. These things can make us feel hopeless and not in control.

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For our challenge this week, we decided to have a long reflection and analysis of why we feel these things are unfair, especially compared to people that lack virtue and work ethic who seem to get ahead.

Through the lens of there being no good but virtue and no evil but vice, the answer is obvious. We are not yet virtuous people by the Stoic definition. Anyone who attained this level of control and wisdom was called a Sage in Stoicism, which was a similar concept to Buddhist enlightenment. In absence of being able to actively be virtuous at each moment of the day, in reaction to each interaction we have, the next best tool in our toolkit is reflection. This can’t stop feelings of unfairness in the present (and the large string of creative curse words that usually follows from myself), but it can help us adapt our position and easily move on.

With respect to our house hunt – it is true that we now have to spend more money than our parents’ generation did to afford a home. For many of us in large cities, it is a false expectation to imagine ever owning/living in a house at all. However, we do live in an apartment with lots of daylight, shelter from the elements, and our own in-suite bathroom and laundry with running water and electricity. That is a pretty luxurious standard of living.

We’ve decided after this exercise to cull our house / condo hunt. Even if we have a family in the next couple years, we can make space in our current home in creative ways. Having a bigger home doesn’t make life good, but being thrilled with what we have does.

Stoics believed that to a good person, losing all of his or her wealth would be analogous to being bitten by a fly, and one would acknowledge severe sickness or injury as simply acts of nature. To a good person, the only thing bad that could happen would be to indulge false expectations, comparison, and suffering. As a contradiction to the very definition of virtue, bad things simply can’t happen to good people.

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