Does Tragedy Make Us Better?

Emma Thompson is quoted as saying, "It's unfortunate and I really wish I wouldn't have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They're kinder." This seems to correlate with the view of many religious people that we must have trials and suffer tragedies in order to become better people. In Hebrews, we read: "For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth." And in Romans, "We rejoice in our suffering." We are told that unless we bear our own cross, we cannot be Christ's disciple (Luke 14) and that we are blessed when we are afflicted so that we can understand the affliction of others (2 Corinthians 1).

When struck with cancer, I have heard devout religious people give thanks to God for their suffering because it has made them better people. Some have said that they are grateful because it saved their marriages, others that they learned patience or that they understood God's love for them at last. You might say that this only happens after people have been cured of cancer or are in remission, but it's not true. I've heard those who are dying say they have never felt closer to God than as they grew sicker and sicker. And it's not just cancer. I've heard those who have suffered many other injuries, from blindness to losing an arm, from mental illness to divorce, losing a spouse to a drunken driver's accident, even the loss of a child -- sometimes people are able to praise God in circumstances that might seem impossible. And they find a way to learn a lesson, to become compassionate, forgiving, and more godlike in every way.

In church meetings, I have heard people stand up and bear testimony that God has given them this specific trial in their life because He knew that they could not have learned this lesson in any other way. I have heard people say that they would not have given up some specific selfish habit or desire unless they had gone through this illness or tragedy, and so it must have been God's design for their life from the beginning. I have watched as friends and family members seem to go through a refining fire when facing the most difficult trials, and come out stronger, wiser, better people.

I will say honestly that I don't understand it. This has not been my own experience with tragedy. And I am not convinced that it is the full story in any case. After all, not everyone who suffers trials becomes kinder. Some people become bitter. Some religious people suffer and reject God. Some of us become cruel and inflict pain on others. Some of us just become weaker physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Others feel that they have been "broken" and are no longer useful to society at large because they are too easily hurt and have become self-protective or because they can no longer see a bigger picture beyond their own losses. And what about the people who have not suffered great tragedies but are also kind?

I don't believe that God designs tragedies for us. I don't believe that He gives people cancer or MS or Parkinson's or any host of other illnesses specifically because He knows that this specific suffering will be good for us. I can't believe this because it feels too much like sadism to me. I cannot imagine inflicting upon any of my children such a trial just because I believe that it would make them stronger or kinder, and I feel that my relationship with God is very much the same as my children's relationship to me, although there are certainly differences.

What if tragedies aren't planned for us, but simply part of the random horror that life visits upon us without any kindlier design or any fairness? What if my loss of a child isn't because that is the thing that I could least bear and God wants to test me, and someone else's paralysis isn't because they most prized their body's strength and so God had to take away their hubris, but just something that happened without a specific purpose? Does it make God any less God if He allows things to happen to us, not because He wants them to happen, but because He allows the capricious nature of the universe to unfold and enables us to choose the ways in which we will respond? Or to take even one step further, what if God doesn't choose our tragedies for us at all, but simply knows that whatever life gives us will bring us to our knees because that's the way that life always is?

God doesn't have to design our tragedies for us to know that sometimes our loved ones will be taken away when we feel we need them most. He doesn't have to intervene for illness to afflict those who most love their own strength -- because we all do. He doesn't need to choose people to have cancer or to MS or Parkinson's because those are the fruits of mortality. And sometimes watching others suffer is as bad or worse than suffering ourselves.

As humans, we always want more than what we have, and so we will suffer. We will always want to change our circumstances for the better. And as we reach beyond our grasp, we will fall. We will have pain. God doesn't have to make that happen. It simply does. And He is there for us when we weep, to give us comfort.

I found when I lost my daughter at birth that I could not worship or honor a God who chose to take her away from me, even if He knew that it would teach me lessons. And it did teach me lessons, I admit that. Am I a better person? I suppose it might depend on who you ask. I am very decidedly a different person. I learned about God's grace, about letting go, about meditation and about demanding answers to prayers. But I do not believe that I had to lose my daughter to learn those lessons. It turns out those lessons are the same lessons that people learn through all sorts of tragedies.

And when people say that you choose how to respond to tragedy, you choose whether or not to praise God and go on, or whether to curse Him and turn away -- I say there are some things you choose and some things you do not choose. I did not choose to suffer depression after my daughter's death. I didn't choose to doubt God and my faith path. I didn't choose to become particularly sensitive to other people talking about the death of children in any circumstance.

I did choose to find faith again after it was lost. I chose to love my remaining children more fiercely than ever. I chose to write about my pain and to be open about it in a way I had not known I could before. I chose to see the world differently, and to judge less easily. I chose to see that everyone is on a journey and to listen more to the way they are journeying, because it is not always the same. We aren't always better because of tragedy, but perhaps we are always more human.