Monday, January 25, 2010

Suffering and Pain

"Why does God allow evil to exist?"

I was never all that sure that He did.

Actually, I'm serious.

I mean, let's look at it for a moment.  What is evil?  Generally we call anything evil that we don't like.  In the Writings, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that evil is the absence of good, just like darkness is the absence of light.  He gives the marvelous example of a scorpion:
...A scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil, for their poison is their weapon, and by their sting they defend themselves. But as the elements of their poison do not agree with our elements -- that is to say, as there is antagonism between these different elements, therefore, this antagonism is evil; but in reality as regards themselves they are good.

He goes on to point out that darkness is merely the absence of light, and cold is merely the absence of heat.  Evil, by the same token, is the absence of good.  And like the darkness disappears with the light, so the evil disappears in the face of the good.

Of course, this is not to say that it doesn't have an effect.  As anyone who lives towards the polar extremes knows, you can die from an absence of heat.  In fact, there is a definite absence of heat outside as I write, prompting me to wear a heavy sweater today.  And that leads me to another point: preparation.

There was a flood in the news a few years ago, and someone had lost their home.  "Why," she complained, "did God do this to me?"  Upon a bit of investigation, I noticed that her house was on a flood plain.  Although I was saddened by her plight, I had to ask myself, "Why did you build your house there?"

You see, dear Reader, I often find that most of the disasters that afflict me in my life are actually self-imposed.  Not all, of course, but quite a few.  A little bit of awareness, a touch of preparation, a modicum of foresight, and the "disaster" would only have been a minor inconvenience.

Take the recent earthquake in Haiti.  That was an absolute disaster by any standards, and it was only made worse by human folly.  When you live in an earthquake zone, you should build accordingly, just as a person living in a flood plain should build their home accordingly, too.  This is not to imply that I am blaming the Haitians for the disaster: far from it.  I'm not sure there is much that could actually withstand an earthquake of that magnitude.  But I believe that it could have been far less of a disaster if the buildings were built more for the earthquake-prone area in which they live.

And my heart does bleed for the friends living there.  My wife and I are even looking into adopting a child from there, if this is possible.

My comments about preparation are only for the future, not a judgement or an indictment about the past.  A tragedy has occurred, and we need to first help the people there, and then learn from what happened.

But back to the basic question of evil.  Perhap the real question is more along the lines of "Why is there suffering and pain?"

To that question, I can only answer that this is the way it is.  In fact, there is pain and suffering on all levels, and, in most cases, it is a sign of growth.

Baha'u'llah, in the Hidden Words, says "The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials."

What does this mean, and how does it apply to our life?  Well, let's look at the example of muscles and exercising.  When you work out, there is often some pain involved.  The old, "No pain, no gain" theory.

In fact, from what I understand, this is actually true.  The pain is caused by the fibers in your muscles ripping.  This, in turn, allows new muscles to "fill in the gap", thus giving you more muscle mass.  Of course, you can go too far and tear the muscle beyond the healthy point, so you do need to be careful.  If you want to get the most effect out of exercising, you must do it patiently, over an extended period of time, and within the bounds of reason.  There will be pain, and you just have to accept that.

I think Ruhiyyih Khanum said it best.  She once said that she didn't know the why of it, but she knew that when she suffered, she always came out of it stronger.

And that is how I feel.

Baha'u'llah, in that quote, seems to say that it is through these tests that we will recognize, if not even achieve, our true strength.

When I think of my relationship with my wife, that quote just rings true.  It is easy to love her when everything is going well (actually, it's always easy to love her, but just bear with me for a moment).  But when the tests come, that is when the true strength of our relationship is shown.

When the petals of the rose of love are blown away by the winds of tests, then the fruit of the rose can begin to grow.  (Hey, that's actually pretty poetic!  I should keep that one.)

The sign of our love is patience under tests.  Actually, the true sign of our love, to me, is the extreme patience she shows me.  And the true sign of our love for God is when we show patience and fortitude under the suffering.

We should not lay the blame at His feet, nor should we resignedly say that it is only God's will.  We should be aware of the world around us, and prepare for what is likely.  God gives us signs about how the world will act, and we must be responsible to take those signs seriously and prepare for the inevitable.

I live in a fairly cold climate and prepare by making sure I have long underwear in the winter, and a heavy coat.  I know that the basement of my house was designed to flood, as it was built for a coal burning furnace, and so I keep everything off the ground.  In fact, if I have anything that can be damaged by humidity, it doesn't even go in the basement.  To put it there would be sheer folly on my part.

And so, back to the original question: Why does evil exist?

I don't think it does.  It only appears to be evil in relation to ourselves, just as something seems cold in relation to the heat of our skin.

And we suffer so that we can be made stronger by it.

Well, time for me to get stronger by going outside in the blizzard again.

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