Harold Kushner experienced a parent’s worst nightmare: to see your child suffer and die prematurely.
When he learned that his son Aaron had progeria, a rare premature aging disease, Kushner embarked on a journey to understand why such a horrible misfortune would strike his child and impact his family.
Humans have always struggled to comprehend suffering. The problem is that misfortune and suffering are part of the human condition, and none of us are immune.
Being a rabbi, Kushner turned to his faith to try to understand what he was experiencing. But he had difficulty finding the answer. He chronicled his journey in a book that has become a classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, published several years after the death of his son.
The conclusions that Kushner comes to aren’t necessarily what one would expect from a religious leader. He notes that God never promised a life without pain, only that we would not walk alone.
Believers may ask for healing and for difficulties to be taken away, but the suffering often continues. Tragically, friends and family die unexpectedly.
We may ask ourselves why these things happened or what we’ve done to deserve them, but we normally won’t find answers.
The key, writes Kushner, is to find meaning in our suffering. This is the same advice that Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl gave to his fellow inmates in a Nazi concentration camp. By finding meaning, we can find the strength and perseverance to overcome suffering.
Terry Fox followed this approach and became one of Canada’s greatest heroes. As a young athlete, he lost a leg to cancer. He responded by embarking on the Marathon of Hope to raise money for cancer research. When he died before completing his journey, people around the world responded by taking up his cause. More than $650 million has been raised in his honour. Others with the same diagnosis as Fox now survive because of advances in research that these funds made possible.
There’s tremendous beauty in this kind of empathy and compassion. When we see others suffer, we seek to comfort them, to love them and to let them know they’re not alone. We also seek to make the situation better.
As a result, tremendous changes happen every day. Not only do we see scientific advances, we see positive progress on human rights. This trajectory can’t be stopped even by the most cruel, selfish and ridiculous of leaders. We need only look at the lynch mobs and concentration camps of the last century to see how far we’ve come.
When we find meaning in our suffering and in the suffering of others, we can change the world.
Because we still feel pain, however, grieving remains an important part of dealing with suffering. Indeed, writing his book was a vital part of Kushner’s effort to heal from the loss of his son. When we’re ready to move beyond questions of why bad things happen to good people, we can focus on how we will respond.
That Aaron Kushner’s life was cut short was tragic, but he touched the world in beautiful, meaningful and amazing ways. The world certainly became a better place because of him. He taught his father, and he teaches us, that love and compassion not only make us human, they are powerful forces of positive change.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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