Saturday 11 July 2020

Bad Sh*t Happens to Good People Too

I don’t believe that if you do good, good things will happen. Everything is completely accidental and random. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people and sometimes good things happen to bad people. But at least if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.
— Helen Mirren

I recently came across the following two related statements on social media:

“Bad things don’t happen to good people.”

“Nice things happen to nice people.”

They struck me as unhealthy at best; at worst stigmatising and judgemental. It was particularly disturbing because they were posted by someone who claims to be a mental health advocate dedicated to combating stigma.

Their author aside, what’s my issue with these statements? At first glance they seem innocuous enough: comforting platitudes of the sort we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives. But that’s the point. Such “innocuous” remarks, masquerading as positivity, seep into our collective subconscious.

“Bad things don’t happen to good people” implies we’re not good people if bad things have happened or are happening to us. Illness? Abuse? Trauma? Unemployment? Homelessness? Bereavement? If we’ve experienced these, the logic goes, we’re not innocent victims or survivors. We are complicit; guilty of attracting these things into our lives because we weren’t good enough in some way. It’s a claim, implicit or otherwise, that I reject utterly.

“Nice things happen to nice people” is more subtle. It doesn’t blame us for the bad stuff in our lives. Instead, it places full responsibility on our shoulders for manifesting the good stuff. Don’t have the things you want yet? Still mired in depression, anxiety, poverty? Addicted? Suicidal? Be a nicer person. Try harder. It’s a short hop from there to the religious equivalent I’ve seen in practice: pray harder, believe more, give yourself to Jesus/God completely.

Both statements play into the false narrative that some people deserve good (or bad) things to happen to them and others don’t. It’s a narrative that can easily lead to envy, resentment, self-recrimination, self-loathing, and despair when we don’t receive what we feel we’re due, whilst others have more than we believe they deserve.

It does matter what kind of people we are and how we go about our lives. I believe we have a responsibility to be the best we know how to be and do all we can to care for ourselves and others. As Helen Mirren says, “if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.”

Just don’t imagine that doing good will necessarily protect you from bad things or attract good things into your life. It doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Yes it sucks. Do good anyway.

“Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” (Kent M. Keith)

Don’t throw lines like “Bad things don’t happen to good people” or “Nice things happen to nice people” around as though they don’t affect people. They can and they do, in unhealthy and harmful ways.

And, please, please, please, don’t judge others — or yourself — based on how life appears to have treated them.


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