Why Do Innocent People Have To Suffer?


As I watch the horrifying news in Ukraine, as hospitals are bombed and unarmed civilians, some of them children, are killed, I can’t help wondering about the question I asked every healer, guru, spiritual leader, mind-body doctor, and trauma therapist during the ten years of my research for my new book Sacred Medicine. It was a metaphysical question, an attempt to make meaning out of tragedies I just couldn’t fathom.

I asked every person I interviewed a series of questions:

Why does one person with stage 4 cancer wind up in a medical journal as a case study for “spontaneous remission” but the majority of the rest rapidly deteriorate and die?

Why do innocent children get murdered in genocides or die of cancer? 

What story do you make up about why one person gets a miracle at Lourdes and another goes home and dies?

Why does one person get their prayers answered and another doesn’t?

What are the limits of our power of co-creation? Is someone ever truly a victim of just bad luck or someone else’s corruption?”

These are not new questions. They are questions religions, philosophers, and spiritual seekers have been asking for millennia.

In an article in CNN last week, a woman who got Covid while pregnant, almost died, and had a near-death experience is asking herself these kinds of questions, born of a kind of survivor’s guilt. Why did she survive Covid when so many others died?

“What do I say? It wasn’t my time. I had more people praying for me. I’m really lucky to have good medical care. I have no idea.”

Trying To Explain The Mystery


You might be surprised how many healers answered those questions in search of meaning about the mysteries of life when I asked them as research for Sacred Medicine.

“Because they are expiating their karma from misdeeds in past lives.”

Okay. That answer felt good to me for a while. But when I dug deeper into that healer’s worldview, I realized the Indian healer who said this to me was a Brahmin Hindu high priest who was using that explanation to justify not doing anything to help the oppressed “untouchables.” Because the untouchables were grateful to expiate their karma on their road to enlightenment. Really? Or was that a way to expiate his own guilt for looking askance as his fellow humans were horribly persecuted while he enjoyed the advantages of the privileged class? Was this idea of karma just a way for the privileged class to justify ongoing oppression?

“Because they manifested this bad outcome with their negative thoughts.”

Well, that’s cool. Sure, if I have a pessimistic attitude, maybe I’ll manifest a crappy life. But upon deeper reflection, I wondered if that was just a way for privileged law of attraction teachers like those who wrote The Secret to make a shit ton of money selling a bogus idea that causes suffering people to blame themselves for something they might have nothing to do with? As Black anti-racist activist Rachel Cargle said, “Maybe you manifested it; maybe it’s your privilege.”

“Because Earth is a spiritual university where souls go to learn all the lessons they need to learn in order to become fully enlightened.”

Maybe. I sure have learned a lot about myself, the world, and the nature of my soul through the traumas that broke me open. I have clearly grown in depth and meaning more through suffering than through times in my life that felt more charmed. But isn’t that oversimplifying things a bit? What about social injustices that might have everything to do with human corruption and might not have anything to do with soul growth? 

“No one is actually a victim at all, though their suffering deserves our compassion. We are all at the mercy of our own dishonesty, lack of integrity, greed, desire to control others, and all the other negative qualities. The worse our behavior, the worse our future experience. And our future experience is worse when we are wandering away from what is in everyone’s highest interest. It is as if the universe is incredibly intricate in the sense that each person who is a part of a particular incident is functioning in it the way they are in order for everyone in it to have the outcome that they need in order to develop spiritually, as if no stone were left unturned, as if the perfection of how the universe functions is total.”

I loved this answer. It felt so complete and satisfied me so universally. Until 2020. Then I started wondering-  what about those who are legitimately victimized? Are we suggesting that their victimization is really due to their own corruption, dishonesty, greed, and misdeeds? Even the healer who wrote this retracted it after 2020. When I asked if she had an updated answer, she said she did not.

“Everything is about learning. The Sufis have a story: ‘There was once an angel who got bored with all the continual bliss they were experiencing in their existence with God. They went and talked to Allah about it and asked Allah if they could have an incarnation on earth now. God’s answer: Of course; it’s time for you to learn some more.’”

Sure, human experience is a learning opportunity, obviously. And yes, we learn so much, especially on the spiritual plane, when we are struggling. But is God really traumatizing us so we can grow some more? Or are humans traumatizing us because of their own trauma?

 “Lissa, I don’t know.”

This last one, given to me by a very good trauma therapist, was my favorite answer.

Baby, Meet Bathwater

We need not throw out the baby with the bathwater in some of these spiritual, religious, metaphysical, or philosophical answers to these questions. Some of these explanations were initially appealing to me. They comforted the parts of me that couldn’t handle believing the world could be this unfair, unjust, and meaningless. If there was no order behind the madness, then any one of us could be flattened without warning. Life would feel too scary if there wasn’t a solid philosophical or metaphysical answer to this question.

It was one thing to use these interpretations of meaning for myself. It was yet another to overlay these beliefs or explanations of why people suffer on suffering others.

As my ten-year journey progressed, these trite answers began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, especially when I ran them by BIPOC people who have suffered a great deal more than many of the white people I know, especially during the pandemic.  While many of the “spiritual” types I knew bought into these explanations and found them helpful, comforting, and meaning-making as ways of making sense of their own suffering, others who I interviewed found them insulting, oversimplified, and the opposite of helpful.

When we look at social justice issues through the lens of this kind of meaning making, we bump into uncomfortable questions. The woman on CNN who barely survived Covid was asking “Why me? Why did I survive when others didn’t?”

Why not others? Why did more BIPOC suffer and die from Covid? Why are Black men dying at the hands of cops more than white men are? Why is the plight of the Indigenous in my country so full of relentless suffering? Why are innocent Ukrainian women and children getting murdered by unprovoked, boundary-violating Russians?

When I ponder these questions, some of the explanations healers gave me about why seemingly innocent people suffer feel tone-deaf. Cruel even. Utterly lacking in empathy for people who are actually suffering and dying. 

If I was grieving the murder of my children in Ukraine, would it make me feel better to believe I had manifested this tragedy because of my negative thoughts? Would I feel comforted by the story that their souls were learning and growing through these murders? Would I feel better if I believed my kids had done something bad in a past life and were expiating their karma by getting murdered in this one? Somehow, I doubt it. I think I would rather someone just gave me a hug and helped co-regulate my nervous system while I grieved the unfairness of it all.

I think I agree with the conclusion of the woman who almost died of Covid but didn’t. Why me? Why did I get to live? She says, “I have no idea.”

I Have No Idea

That’s the only answer I can sit comfortably with anymore. Why do horrible tragedies sometimes happen to unprovoked, totally innocent people while heartless, corrupt people who abuse their power get off the hook? I have no freakin’ idea.

When you’re training as a doctor, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. “I have no idea” is an answer that will get bloody scalpels thrown at you in the OR. You damn well better know the answer, or someone might die- and you will get blamed.

But every answer to the question “Why do innocent people suffer unjustly” feels like an insensitive cop-out. “I don’t know, but I’m so sorry this is happening” feels kinder, more humble somehow.

I’m aware that “I don’t know why innocent people must suffer” makes me feel totally vulnerable. I feel out of control and at the mercy of ruthless people who might harm the innocents of the world with zero accountability while “spiritual people” write it off as “You manifested this with your negative thoughts” or “You had it coming to you because of your bad karma” or “Your soul signed up for this sacred contract.”

Now, given the unfoldings of the world right now, what I once found comforting no longer comforts me. As I watch Ukrainians run for their lives when they’re at the mercy of a ruthless dictator, when I try to make a meaningful story about why that’s happening, I get nothing but tears. Maybe some horrors are simply too awful to understand. 

My spiritual teacher once answered my relentless “why?” and “how?” questions with “Lissa, what if ‘how’ and ‘why’ are the booby prize?” Maybe the best we can do is feel our discomfort with the uncertainty of not knowing while we rally together around others who are suffering, hold each other in great arms of love, feel the quivering in our chests because we don’t know why bad things happen- together.

Then, like the volunteers who helped rescue people from the bombed maternity hospital in Ukraine and those around the world who are taking in over 2 million refugees and the countless people who are donating money and supplies, we can do what is within our power to ease the suffering of those who are in pain, unjustly. We need not feel helpless to help, even if we can’t understand why.

Finding Gratitude In The Place Of Entitlement

The woman in the CNN article is still recovering. She can’t cut her own food, tie her shoes or change her child’s clothes because of constant pain in her hands. She has trouble walking and needed therapy to learn how to swallow again. Her sense of taste and smell is gone. The nerve damage from her illness still lingers, and she’s in constant physical therapy. She depends on her 15-year-old daughter for help.

She doesn’t have an answer for why she got to live and others don’t, but she says, “I feel a profound sense of responsibility. I was given a second chance of life. I have to live a life in a way that’s honorable for the people who didn’t get a chance, and for the people who will never walk, talk or breathe on their own.”

Any of us who have ever gotten close to our own mortality know that surviving a brush with death has the power to make us profoundly grateful. When we no longer take ordinary things for granted, when we feel appreciation rather than entitlement, gratitude for even the simplest things can rise to the surface like cream.

We may not be able to answer “why,” but we can be inspired by this Covid survivor who says she appreciates so many things she once took for granted- the ability to breathe, walk, and swallow.

She had to learn what many of the greatest spiritual traditions say: We come into the world helpless; we leave it the same way. We need one another.

Good Bones

As I ponder all this, I can’t help thinking of the poem GOOD BONES by Maggie Smith: 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.



Lissa Rankin


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