Why do good people suffer?

Om Swami

I remember as a child two books I enjoyed reading were Hitopdesha and Panchtantra, the Indian versions of Aesop’s Fables if you will, written some 2000 years ago. I was looking for a particular story to share with you when I came across something similar in You Don’t Eat A Lion Doesn’t Mean The Lion Won’t Eat You by Udaylal Pai. I’ve paraphrased it a bit (umm…quite a lot, actually; almost entirely, in fact):

Once upon a time, in a certain village, a young boy was walking alone by the riverside when he heard desperate cries for help.

“Please help me, save me, someone please release me,” a crocodile was shouting. Flapping his tail, the animal was badly entangled in a net, like humans in desires.

The boy wanted to help the poor croc but was skeptical. “If I help you,” he said, “you’ll eat me the moment you are free.”

The crocodile shed tears and said, “How can I eat the person who saved my life? My kind doesn’t savor their savior. I promise that I won’t even touch you and will remain eternally indebted to you.”

The boy felt pity and began to cut the net. Barely was the crocodile’s head free from the net, when, as expected, it grabbed the boy’s leg in its jaws, and said: “I have been starving for a few days now…”

“What the hell!” the boy screamed. “You damn croc, you return my goodness like this!”
“What can I do? This is the way of the world! Such is life!”
“This is so unfair!” cried the boy.
“What do you mean unfair! Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that this is how the universe operates. If they prove me wrong, I’ll let you go.”
The boy saw a bird perched on a nearby tree and asked him, “Do you think the crocodile’s actions are fair? Is this the way of the world – full of injustice?”

The female bird had been observing the entire episode, so she quickly replied that the croc was right. Goodness isn’t always reciprocated in kind. She along with her partner spent their time building a safe nest to protect their young ones, but all that mostly went to waste because the snakes would come and swallow the eggs, she apprised him. No doubt, she finished by saying, that the world was not a fair place.

“You heard it, kid,” the croc said, tightening its grip on the boy’s slender leg. “Let me eat you…”
“Wait…” He saw an old donkey that was grazing on the banks of the river and posed him the same question.
“Unfortunately, the croc is right,” the donkey said. “I’m a donkey, everyone thinks I’m a fool and yet even I know that this world is anything but fair. Bad things happen to good people all the time. When I was young, my master loaded soiled linen on my back and extracted the maximum amount of work from me. I served him faithfully for years. Now that I am old and feeble, he has abandoned me saying that he cannot feed me. So, yes, the crocodile is right. There’s great injustice, inequality and unfairness.”

“Enough now,” the croc said to the boy. “I’m salivating, I can’t hold it any longer. Say your prayer if you want.”
“Wait, wait,” the boy insisted. “Just one last time, let me ask that rabbit. They say the third time’s a charm.”
“Since you saved me, I’ll give you one final chance.”

Upon being asked the same question, the rabbit’s reply differed completely from the bird and the donkey.
“This is utter nonsense! It’s not like that at all,” the rabbit said. “The world is a perfectly fair place.”
“What are you talking about, you dumb bunny!” the crocodile mumbled with the boy’s leg in its jaws. “Of course, this world is an unfair place. Look at me! I got caught in the net to begin with, for no fault of mine.”
“You sound like a man trying to talk with paan, beetle leaf, in his mouth. I can’t make sense of your mumbling, speak clearly and loudly.”
“I know where you are going with this! I’ll open my mouth to speak clearly and the boy will escape.”
“You stupid or what?” the rabbit said. “Have you forgotten how strong your tail is? If he attempts to run away, one slash and he’ll be dead. You are the mightiest around here!”

The crocodile fell for this false praise and opened his mouth to continue the argument.

The rabbit screamed, “Run boy run! Don’t just stand there!” and the boy took to his heels.

The crocodile was mad with rage. “You cheat! You took away my food. This is so unfair!”
“Look who’s talking!” the bunny said, nibbling on a cherry dropped from the tree.

The boy rushed to the village and gathered all the menfolk who came with their spears and swords and killed the crocodile. His pet dog, that had come along with them, spotted the rabbit and chased it down.

“Hey! Hey!” the boy cried, trying to catch his dog. “This rabbit saved my life. Don’t attack him.” It was but a bit too late, the dog had already buried its fangs in the rabbit’s tender neck. It was no more than a lifeless ball of fur.

“Maybe the crocodile was right, after all,” the boy lamented. “Unfairness is the way of the world! Such is life!”

After speaking to thousands of people, seeing suffering from up close, I feel it would be ignorant to still believe that there’s a way out of the suffering. Here, I am not differentiating between pain (what is) and suffering (what we think it is). Buddha proclaimed that suffering existed and that there was a way out. Maybe. Vedas too say that if I can maintain a state of equanimity, if I can forever remember the impermanent, even unreliable, nature of this world, I would not suffer as much.

Good people suffer all the time. So much so, there’s almost no direct correlation between how good or spiritual you are vis-à-vis how much suffering you may have to endure in your life. Being good or great cannot protect you from physical or mental diseases if you hit the genetic jackpot, for example. Being good doesn’t mean that we can’t be hit by a truck or a drunk driver. Being good has no bearing on your stock prices or the life of your loved ones. In other words, goodness grants neither immunity from nor compensation for everything that we may deem as not good.

The question then arises if that’s the case, why be good at all? If my goodness does nothing to alleviate my suffering (not directly anyway), why bother with all this goodness and kindness business? The answer is a lot more straight forward and simpler than the question itself. And that is: being good is our inherent nature. We are designed to experience happiness when we practice goodness. Therefore, people are good because that’s our natural dharma. Goodness and its cousin kindness, give us the strength to face the challenges and difficulties this life brings as regularly as the seasons.

We pray, we meditate, we act kindly, we do good because we must; that’s what goodness is. It is an integral part of us. We may prove ourselves right, eventually though, it’s not when we have our way but when we make way that we experience joy and happiness. We must not relinquish goodness because it infuses strength and resilience in us. What’s even more amazing is that good people can’t stop being good just because the rewards are not coming through. Good people remain good. They understand that it’s not a choice. Think of some of the greatest human beings. Did they retort to violence or misdemeanor just because goodness wasn’t paying off?

Our challenges test us but our attitude shapes us. Our difficulties don’t break us, instead, they make us. They bring out what we have in us. Hence, good people become better, not bitter, when met with resistance.

The young Mulla was barely seven-years-old when his neighbor lured him with two dinars.
“Can you go buy two samosas from the corner shop?” he said. “You can eat one and bring the other one for me.”
Ten minutes later Mulla came back and said, “Here’s the balance of one dinar. The shopkeeper only had one samosa so I had mine. Thank you.”

A good person suffers in the same way like any other. Just because someone’s a good mathematician or an artist doesn’t mean, they can’t fall sick. Rather, such a comparison is preposterous. Similarly, just because someone’s spiritually evolved doesn’t mean he or she is outside the purview of the laws of nature. Or in the words of Udaylal Pai: just because you don’t eat a lion doesn’t mean the lion won’t eat you.

Does that mean we should be bad? Let me tell you, it’s not in your hands. Besides, how will that help? After all, the opposite of goodness doesn’t shield you from suffering either. So what does, you ask? Your perspective, your attitude, your view of and your expectations from life do. When these are aligned, there may be challenges, resistance, pain, but no suffering. You may wince but you won’t cry, you may crumble but you won’t be crushed.

When all else fails, it’s your inherent goodness alone that helps you steer the ship of life in choppy seas. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and many others before and after them used this basic principle to weather the ravaging storms.

It doesn’t matter whether one is the boy, crocodile, donkey or the rabbit, there are no guarantees in life. And perhaps, this uncertainty is what makes our life adventurous.

Goodness is prayer, it is meditation. In fact, goodness is God. Be good.

Om Swami

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