Sutherland: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people-blog-postMichelle Johnson, the Kansas City Star’s ‘Diversity Diva’, was able to put succinctly into words an idea that I had struggled with for some time…

Johnson drew on her experience as an employment lawyer to explain why some types of lawsuits were easier to win than others. She learned that jurors are reluctant to hold an employer liable for discrimination against the handicapped because they are reluctant to attribute such base motives to someone else. It’s disturbing to think, after all, that a person could be harassed or fired through no fault of their own, i.e. because of their physical disability.

However people do understand someone acting on a personal grudge or resentment, because they are more candid in recognizing that they themselves have acted from such motives. Thus, Johnson, said it’s much easier to win a verdict based on a claim of retaliatory behavior, which they will admit is understandable, even though wrong.

As Johnson puts it, “People don’t like to believe that unfair things happen.”

She cites articles which show a widespread belief that since “the world is basically fair and just, thus, people who have horrible things happen to them involving other human beings must have brought it on themselves.” Facing Uncomfortable Truths Means Opening Ourselves To Pain, 2-9-15.

18422_496260270410358_1689781222_n1I now recall that a character in Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon Days” makes a similar observation: “Anyhow, I was brought up to believe that whatever happens to people is their own fault. There were few, if any, disasters that you couldn’t explain by citing the mistakes made by the victims, e.g. ‘She never should have been there in the first place.’ Even if you had to go back 30 years, you could find where they took the wrong fork in the road that led directly to their house burning down, their car being hit by a truck, their hands being eaten by a corn-picker.”

Just in my own circle of acquaintances I’ve noticed this pattern.

The murder of elderly Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Arab terrorists?

“Don’t you know that that old man must have really mouthed off for them to shoot him in his wheel chair and throw him in the ocean!”

No, actually, I don’t.

ebf1bf0923e68a6862e570132b97ef71The death by anthrax poisoning of a 63 year old magazine editor in Florida, a 68 year old retired nurse in New York, and a 94 year old retired teacher in Connecticut in the immediate aftermath of 9-11?” You see, coke dealers are in the practice of sending out free samples in the mail. When the three people who died of anthrax opened envelopes containing the white powder that was anthrax, they snorted it, thinking it was cocaine. So if they hadn’t been coke heads, this never would have happened to them!”

Okay,  that seems very likely, given the demographic profiles of the victims and the well-known generosity of drug dealers.

A friend who is in his early fifties goes in to see a doctor for splitting headaches, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and is dead within weeks?

“He knew a long time before but chose to neglect his condition and this is what happened. He just had to have known!”

A little girl is taken from her home in the middle of the night by a total stranger and then raped and murdered?

“You know the story on that, don’t you? Her parents were part of a swingers club 15 years before- the girl was 10- so they brought this on themselves!”

why-me11I don’t see the causal connection, as we say in the law.

Believe it or not these bizarre, tortured, rationalizations are meant as a defense mechanism. I don’t do anything wrong, I follow all the rules so nothing bad will happen to me!

Of course, bad things do happen to good people, through no fault of their own, so the only logical response is for them to blame themselves, if they’ve swallowed this way of thinking.

I’d be interested in hearing from you if you’ve encountered this mentality.

Is it a Mid-Western thing? A WASP thing? A generational thing? A hangover from the Puritan tradition in Protestantism, even though the attendant religious beliefs that go with it have fallen away?

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21 Responses to Sutherland: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

  1. 'rhahhararley says:

    “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
    Harold Kushner

    suggest people read his book. May help many people. But some disagree.
    But a great book to read when life has jolted you.
    Your friend

    • Dwight D. Sutherland, Jr. says:

      Thank you for reminding us of who first started this discussion. Rabbi Kushner explained in a very accessible,reader-friendly way what people of all faiths have struggled with for ever,the problem of evil. What Johnson has done,as has Garrison Keillor,is take the analysis to the next level,i.e how do people handle the dilemma.Unfortunately, as Johnson noted,the all too widespread pattern is to blame the victim,even if it means blaming yourself, for misfortune.

  2. 'rhahhararley says:

    6 officers in Baltimore apparently getting indicted…mostly manslaughter.
    Freddie did not break the law….running is not against the law….read
    the author and director of the wire who wrote about what happens when
    people run from the baltimore police….its about the shoes….the shoes!!!!!!!!
    Let justice take its toll.
    But the police have to come to grips with their behavior.
    There are bad people n the world….we shall see if after justice is handed out
    whether those police officers are bad people.
    Police have lied to many times in this case. Are they bad people?

    • the dude says:

      Hey, we all know if he would not have ran when they made eye contact he would not have been killed by the B’More PD. I mean, at that point they have to rough ride him and refuse to get him medical attention because, well I don’t really know because.
      Can’t we just treat humans like humans? Is that too much to ask here? A little empathy? I know cops don’t have it easy but that is no excuse for what happened here.

  3. Kerouac says:

    Traveling down the sublime road perdition, random thoughts on responsibility…

    * A woman is nonplussed when her (minimum) attire leads to (more) attention than she wants (or something worse.) As husband, father, my sister’s brother & mother’s son, say with reverence that ‘respect’ is an two-way street, self and otherly. Though one can embrace noble dreams of an unmolested world, variously, said is naive, wish were not so.

    From the serious aforementioned, to the tongue in cheek incredulous:

    * A tv commercial spoofs auto insurance, their punchline “the accident was half your fault – if you hadn’t left home today, it never would have happened.”

    Ending with the inane:

    * Narrative masturbatory musings the blogosphere aside, not a single verified case of blindness despite pursuit that ‘maneuver’ which (it has been claimed) leads little (and big) boys go blind. A defective mechanism, not performing said correctly or merely a perpetual lie? More ‘research’ is needed… ongoing.


  4. Stomper says:

    I almost feel like I should apologize to you, Dwight. When I started reading the piece, I immediately thought this was going political. I assumed you would write something like defense attornies prefer republicans on the jury as they are more likely to impose a higher level of personal responsibility on the plaintiff and less likely to find the defendant responsible for some alleged tort. Maybe try to make the point that individuals should be more accepting of the concept that they are personally responsible for things that happens in their life and government should not regulate or intervene when bad things happen to good people, regardless of the situation. Yes, bad things do happen to good people and if lines must be drawn between personal responsibility, just dumb luck, or holding some other individual or entity responsible, where should those lines be drawn? What is the scope of causal connection? Sometimes people are responsible for things that happen to themselves, sometimes things just happen to them and no one is really responsible, and sometimes things happen to them that some other person or entity is responsible and should be held responsible. Maybe some behaviors are potentially so dangerous that they should be regulated.

    But you fooled me Dwight. I almost came away thinking that your point was that people should possibly be a bit more in the habit of pointing the finger elsewhere and a bit less at themselves for inequities in their life. Maybe a stricter, less encompassing definition of “personal responsibility”. Is it possible that there might be just a touch of some liberal ideology bouncing around inside you? 🙂 If your point was just that “$hit Happens” , and we shouldn’t blame ourselves, I concur.

    Good piece Dwight. I might even say thought provoking.

  5. chuck says:

    At some point in time, we have all suffered from the “Tyranny of Small Decisions”. The implication that a bad piece of luck is a character flaw, is, in and of itself, a character flaw and a predictable part of the human condition.

    In my opinion, geography has nothing to do with it.

    • Dwight Sutherland,Jr. says:

      In this instance,I think you’re right. There are,however,definitely regional differences in behavior and outlook. In most instances,we mid-westerners come out on top in my estimation,which is why I would never want to live on the East Coast. I encounter incidents of road rage when I’m on Long Island two or three times a day whereas here I can go for up to six months at a time before being flipped off,screamed at,or otherwise intimidated by some other driver’s anger or impatience. When my wife and I were in a very nice suburb of New York recently I went into a deli to buy a cup of coffee and of hot chocolate. The lady behind the counter said to us after we paid;” You are not from here are you ? I can tell because you said ‘please’and ‘thank-you’ !”

      • chuck says:


        Generalizations and stereotypes are valuable, utilitarian tools.


        Bu the way, I have Glazer on the phone on hold, he and I are curious about those “Free Samples”.

        It’s Friday man.

      • 'rhahhararley says:

        in kc…if you’re not half way thru the intersection when your
        light turns green…people behind you are honking at you.

  6. Dwight Sutherland,Jr. says:

    Years ago a young woman who was dating a friend of mine took a science course her last year of college. She was assigned a graduate assistant who taught the lab sessions that were part of the course. She turned him down when he-the grad student- asked her out on a date. She was unpleasantly surprised to fail the course,particularly when she had a B plus average in the class going into the final. I told an adult I knew about it and she steadfastly refused to believe the obvious,i.e. the instructor had failed her because of her refusal to go out with him. She insisted that my friend’s girl friend had just neglected her course work and was coming up with an excuse for flunking.(This despite the fact that she knew and liked the young woman,my buddy her boy-friend,her family.)While I realize that this was years before anyone gave a name to sexual harassment,any adult in their fifties should have know this kind of thing
    goes on in the work place,in colleges,or most other institutions where some people have power over others and abuse that privilege. Why is that such a hard idea to accept?

    • H Luce says:

      The other side of that story is when a female student, usually pre-med, who needs that “A”, goes to the instructor and makes an offer of a trade of services. This happened to a friend of mine at an Ivy League school back east. He had another female pre-med who threatened to “gorge” herself if he didn’t switch her grade from a “D” to an “A”. He should have called suicide prevention, because he gave her the “D” and she went out and jumped head first.

      • Dwight Sutherland,Jr. says:

        No doubt it works both ways! There was a notorious woman full professor when I was an undergrad who had a “thang” for male varsity athletes.( Needless to say she was a big proponent of Womens’ Studies and courses on Gender and Sexual Oppression.)She finally retired a few years ago and admitted to bedding doctoral candidates in a confessional autobiography(try freshmen swimmers and wrestlers!)but blamed it all on Demon Rum. I seem to remember being solicited on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 outside the campus library when both of us were presumably cold,stone sober.(I fled,terrified!) Your point is well taken. We’re still adding up the casualties of the ’70s. To quote John Podhoretz,paraphrasing Auden on the 30’s,”a low dishonest decade”!

        • chuck says:

          “I seem to remember being solicited on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 outside the campus library when both of us were presumably cold,stone sober.”

          Obviously, sobriety is overrated. NO ONE had Herpes back in the 70’s. If there was a snake in a bush, you pork the bush (Insert your own joke here). You, as a God Loving, Red Blooded, Son of the American Empire, should have done your duty (I said dooty). The necessity of that “autobiography” is negated with your carnal knowledge (Surely she comes over to the dark side after a romp in the sack with a conservative captain of industry. Yes, I called you Shirley. Is their a uniform or an outfit for a “Captain of Industry”? ) 🙂

          Lemme be clear on this, my son is now 32. But if he came home 15 years ago and told me that this teacher was molesting him—


          I would have bought him a new car.

          Teachers are hot. Sister Mary Carmelita in 8th Grade.

          Holy SH*T!!

          All of us old fogeys still talk about her. We all loved her.

          • chuck says:

            Yeah, I get it, she wore a “nun” outfit.

            Sister Mary Carmelita was a BVM.


            Thank GOD!!

            The fire eyed maid of smoky war was averted. Nations, lives and civilization itself were in jeopardy in the 60’s, were it not for the black burka that encompassed this ecclesiastical siren.

            We St. Catherine’s, 8th grade graduates were talking about her again, last month. There are fewer of us now, but we still carry the torch.

            She was Italian. Her eyes were a deep soft color of brown on the perimeter, that coalesced into a romantic epiphany for we kids. E—– still says that she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. M— and J— think, to this day, that she personifies the perfect woman. Brilliant, beautiful, compassionate and a welcome force of nature, that, affected infinity. There are still a dozen or so left, 2 locally famous lawyers, a couple of us are really rich, the rest, like me, are blue collar working schmucks.

            In retrospect, we all admit, that Sister Charles Marie was the enforcer (She, in one day, took out Jerry Enrite, Mike Dunn and Bernie Gnefkow with thunder in both hands. I was there, you couldn’t have pulled a darning needle out of my azz I was so scared.). But Sister Carmelita was a goddess sent to us kids that to this day, makes us think, that maybe Jesus really does love us.

            God forgive me for saying this, unbelievable zoomers.


        • the dude says:

          Dwight, I blame all my life’s poor decisions on the demon rum. Worked so far.

  7. Nick says:

    I lived in Cali for 10 years – both San Francisco and San Diego. Maybe 2-3 times in that period I heard people irrationally ascribe misfortune to the victim’s (putative) behavior. In each instance the judgment came from folks recently (within 2 generations) transplanted from the Midwest. Long-term Cali residents tended to blame life when stuff got hair-balled, or the actual responsible party (e.g. muggers, rapists, car thieves, politicians, et alia).

  8. chuck says:

    Hey Hearne, Kelly is a funny guy.

    There is no reason to turn off the comments.

    I always read them and laugh. My bet, is that he can take the heat.

    1 out of 4 times, he is hilarious. 3 out of 4 times he is funny.

    That is actually, in my opinion, pretty good.

  9. chuck says:

    Kinda disappointing that there is no Glazer Take on “The Fight”.

    Here is the deal.

    Manny Pacquiao has no prayer of winning this fight in the traditional sense.

    While there may well be malfeasance and the fight could very well be “fixed”, I can tell you this, having boxed myself back in the day.

    The ONLY way Pacquiao wins, is to fight like Aaron Pryor (“No, not that bottle, the other one.”). He has to make it a brawl that covers every one in the first three rows in blood. Or lose.

    He can do it, if the fight is not fixed.

    • the dude says:

      100 smackers to watch Mayweather run around the ring, get in a hugging match and see how many headlocks he could put Manny in. At one point I thought Mayweather was a high concept artist performing interpretive dance because it sure as hell wasn’t a boxing match I was watching there.

  10. CFPCowboy says:

    We like to think the world is fair and equitable, but it is not. Bad things happen to good people, and there are things in the world, where there will never be justice. There will never be justice for children who acquire disease, and, although man would like to make it right, we can’t. An ambulance chasing lawyer tells the parents who lost a child that it is the doctor’s fault, and someone should sue, but we know that the doctor did not cause the cancer, create the birth defect, or do anything more than try to make it right. Some say it is God’s will. Some say what comes around, goes around, and sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are wrong. Understanding comes when we realize that we are not the all-omnipotent beings, and there are things out of our control. So, the next time someone claims to want to be fair, want a fair share, or is looking for justice, ask yourself, whose fair share or whose justice? I am not entitled to one of your children if you have two and I have none. It doesn’t work that way no matter how much you had to spend to bail the kid out of jail. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when I can turn the tables on an idiot and a bully, but often the bad guy wins, mother nature smacks us down, and spending time looking to blame someone for an act of Mother Nature, just keeps us from moving on with our lives.

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