Why Do Innocent People Suffer Horrible Tragedies?

While making the final edits to my Sacred Medicine book, I asked one healer if she had a point of view in response to the question, “Why do horrific things happen to seemingly innocent people?” I explained to her that the question is relevant to the book because those who chronically suffer from physical or mental illness often seek answers to the question, “Why me” or “Why not her?” I told her that every answer I had heard thus far in my research fell flat from a post-2020 lens, and because I had a lot of respect for her, I was curious about her point of view at this point in our understanding (and lack thereof) of human suffering. First, let’s examine how some of the world’s healers and spiritual teachers explain human suffering- and how these beliefs may be paradoxically true and not true at the same time.


The Brahman Hindu guru who I worked with in Bali explained that the suffering and injustices of the oppressed “untouchables” were expiating karma from misdeeds in a past life. When asked whether they were resentful of their place on the lowest rung of the caste system, he said they were grateful for their chance to clear their karma so they could be rewarded in the next life. But my inner bullshit detector lit up. Was that really true? That sounded like a very convenient way for a privileged Brahman to justify oppressing an underprivileged class of good and innocent humans and be absolved of the social responsibility of leveraging his own power and privilege to change the injustice.

When I asked one mystic healer to explain why some people become victims of terrible suffering, she said, “My sense is that no one is actually a victim at all, though their suffering deserves our compassion, but that 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 explanation when I first heard it. It appealed to my need for order in a chaotic world and it made me feel less scared of random tragedy. But now I wonder if this belief system is another defense system to protect us from the feelings that arise if we simply don’t know why the world feels so unjust and why such horrible things can happen for no apparent reason.

I don’t believe the world is entirely random and lacks any order.  Just look at nature if you want to be bedazzled by the perfection of a Fibonacci spiral and how it plays out in nature. (This is my favorite video about this kind of perfection). I understand karma as simple action and consequence. It makes sense that if you cause harm, you’re likely to endure suffering. But is this karmic explanation of the nature of suffering just a protective strategy that may impair our empathy and interrupt our inclination towards social justice and easing the suffering of those who are hurting? What if some people who are harmed are not experiencing the consequence of causing harm but are actually innocent victims of an unjust world?

Your Soul Chose Your Suffering

Many healers routinely explained human suffering as something the soul chooses, as a way to grow spiritually and evolve as a soul, as if Planet Earth is a sort of soul university- Earth School. They believe we choose our traumas, our triumphs, our privilege or lack thereof before we are even born. We choose our abusive parents, we choose our sexual abuse, we choose to grow up in a war zone or get cancer at a young age- all so we can develop certain spiritual virtues, like forgiveness, resilience, or non-attachment.

One healer, in response to seeing a person on the street who was obviously disabled and in pain, said to me, “Respect. Respect that man. He is a strong soul,” implying that he’s such an advanced soul that he picked a really hard life and might be close to enlightenment. At the time, I thought it was a helpful turnaround, an antidote to pity. But later on, I wondered if that was a way for her to avoid actually feeling his pain empathically or taking any responsibility for easing his suffering in some way or helping out if he needed assistance.

One healer said, “My understanding is that 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. The idea: Earth is a spiritual university where souls go to learn all the lessons they need to learn in order to become fully illuminated. So trauma and suffering exist to educate us towards that goal. It is the education of direct experience. We have the power to work towards our development or choose not to. I feel that this may be the limit of our co-creating. The rest of what we think of as power doesn’t feel very real to me anymore in the sense that, for some people who have lived non-dually, this life in which we are writing to each other feels like an illusion, as some people put it, or perhaps an irrelevance.”

I have been comforted by this belief, especially when I was enduring 13 back to back traumas within three years and feeling quite victimized. By all means, if this belief helps you make meaning of your own trauma, as it has helped me, then apply it! But I think we have to be careful not to overlay this belief on anyone else who might be suffering. If we project this onto other suffering humans, it could become a far too convenient way for those who endure less suffering to let themselves off the hook and put a neat bow on suffering, separating oneself from it, whether that suffering be in oneself or in someone else. It could also be a way to avoid feeling the helplessness and despair that can come with real suffering and victimization.

When I taught the Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 class, I asked my sister, who is far less privileged than I am and has lived a much harder life, how she feels about the idea that her soul chose certain life circumstances, such as being born to a mother who would give her up for adoption or being born a brown person in a country that disrespects and traumatizes brown people. Keli said, “If my soul chose this life, then my soul is an asshole.” I asked her how she’d feel if someone who had suffered less overlaid this belief system upon her. She said, “I’d just roll my eyes and get the hell outa dodge.”

I asked Keli if she thinks we’re better off just going with the nihilistic, “Shit happens” explanation, and she said she wouldn’t go that far, because it’s also true that her traumas have been the catalysts for her growth, and some of them don’t feel random. But she doesn’t have an answer for my question other than, “Hell if I know,” which at least feels more honest and humble than the pat answers some of the healers offered up like a buffet of certainty in an uncertain world.

Dark Entities

When I was studying with a Qigong Master from China, she explained everyone’s suffering as some sort of entity. The doctor with the twisted back was suffering because of the dead boy from her childhood whose energy was attached to her. A man’s cancer was because he sold a turtle he caught to a restaurant for turtle soup and that turtle was a reincarnated wise sage. An alcoholic was drinking to excess because his dead brother was attached to him and could no longer get drunk without a body so never felt satisfied by the booze- a literal hungry ghost. My suffering was because of the spirits of dead babies from those abortions I performed during residency. I had to laugh when I read this blog post written by New Age healer turned empathy researcher Karla McLaren, who wrote a hysterical piece about why she left the New Age and became a scientist after hearing herself explain her own medical condition as being the result of an “Atlantean pelvic alien” that was attached to her- and then suddenly wondering if she’d just drank too much of the New Age Kool-aid.

In the world of Internal Family Systems (IFS), many therapists with no belief system for or against the idea of “entities” have encountered what they call “unattached burdens,” which behave in a way that is similar to what the shamans might call “entities.” While traumatic burdens from parts that have been wounded need to be unburdened, unattached burdens simply need to be treated with a firm boundary, almost like an exorcism. So maybe there’s something to this idea of stuck energies that don’t belong to us and can make us suffer. But maybe, like the idea of karma and Earth School, this can be used to oversimplify a complex world and bypass issues like white supremacy or misogyny or other forms of oppression that can cause real suffering in ways we have the power to change. I don’t know whether dark energies attach to us and cause us to suffer, but I do believe in legacy burdens, ancestral trauma, and the way pain from the past can literally change our DNA in ways that can cause unnecessary suffering. I also believe such burdens from our historical past can be treated and those traumatic energies can be removed with cutting edge trauma treatments.

Everything Happens For A Reason

In the Christian church in which I was raised, suffering was explained as “Everything happens for a reason” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Such beliefs can foster resilience and help us rise to the challenges every life ultimately presents. They go hand in hand with Einstein’s idea that our orientation fundamentally shifts when we choose to believe we live in a friendly universe, not a hostile one. This belief system has comforted me greatly in times of distress. But now I wonder if my ability to believe in a friendly universe is more a result of my many privileges than the actual kindness of the forces of creation.

If we trust in a benevolent God who never gives us more than we can handle and offers us challenges as a way to initiate or spiritually develop us as a soul, how do we explain people like my cousin, who killed himself as a young man? His father is a pastor, and his mother a psychotherapist- and he was being treated by the best mental health workers. But none of the people who loved and cared about him could help him handle human existence. Apparently, God gave my cousin more than he could handle.

I asked one healer to help me make sense of this, and she said that some souls choose an overly ambitious Earth School curriculum, choosing their struggles before birth but not fully realizing how hard it’s going to be. She takes a compassionate lens on suicide, seeing it not as a weakness or failure, but as a way to jump ship when a soul has taken on more than their development has prepared them to cope with. She doesn’t believe there is any punishment for the choice to opt out, no bad karma, or burdened next life. She says some souls just need a do-over, with a lighter course load- and God is full of mercy, without a lick of judgment.

We can all think of times when our challenges can become our strengths. We can alchemize our pain into spiritual gold and psychological healing- and I’m all for that. I like the “pronoia” optimism and the belief that everything in the universe is conspiring to shower me with blessings, even when hard things are happening. I have found much comfort in the whole “It’s not happening to you; it’s happening for you.” But I’ve also spoken to suffering people who find this belief system pedantic, unempathic, bypassing, and offensive.

Diamond Approach founder A.H. Almaas writes, “Your conflicts, all the difficult things, the problematic situations in your life are not chance or haphazard. They are actually yours. They are specifically yours, designed specifically for you by a part of you that loves you more than anything else. The part of you that loves you more than anything else has created roadblocks to lead you to yourself. You are not going in the right direction unless there is something pricking you in the side, telling you, ‘Look here! This way!’ That part of you loves you so much that it doesn’t want you to lose the chance. It will go to extreme measures to wake you up.  It will make you suffer greatly if you don’t listen. What else can it do? That is its purpose.”

Again, I have received great comfort from believing that my traumas were given to me in order to prick me into awakening from the slumber of my conditioning and patterned auto-pilot reactivity. But lately, I wonder how that would land on George Floyd’s mother if someone told her some part of her loved her so much that it arranged to have her son murdered in front of the public eye. Sure, she might find some comfort in how his death energized a movement and may become the blow big enough to awaken white people to the plight of BIPOC. Or maybe it’s catalyzed a profound shift in her own consciousness. But maybe she’d just roll her eyes at that quote. I don’t know. But I certainly wouldn’t try to overlay that belief on someone else who is suffering the way she must be as the man who killed her son goes to trial.

Maybe sometimes our silent witnessing, our open hearts, our humble “I don’t know why this is happening, but I’m here and you’re not alone” is the most spiritual way of being with the suffering of others.

Might This Explain Vaccine Hesitancy?

Thinking about this question helped me open my heart to the furious anti-vaxxers who went after New Age author Starhawk with pitchforks when she posted a video of herself getting the Covid vaccine and who have been trolling me online, requiring me to set uncomfortably rigid boundaries on social media. I can empathize with how hard it must be if something awful happens to your child. Sometimes horrifying, scary, unexpected, and unexplainable things happen to innocent children- and sometimes those awful things happen around the time that children are routinely vaccinated. Although the science clearly and unequivocally supports the risk/benefit ratio of mass vaccination for major childhood illnesses, I can see how it might be so much easier to have a scapegoat if something awful happens to your child. I’m not saying that vaccine injuries never happen, but they’re exceedingly rare. What’s less rare is for a disability like autism to get diagnosed in childhood- unrelated to the vaccine but proximally timed near when a child has been vaccinated. Consider how much easier it might be to blame a vaccine and become an activist who intends to protect others from such an awful tragedy than to wrestle with the helplessness of “I don’t know what happened to my child?”

Embracing “I Don’t Know”

“I don’t know” can be such a scary place to inhabit, especially in light of human suffering. I wonder if sometimes our distress is so great that our curious minds simply cannot handle “I don’t know.” Maybe we feel compelled to make up fiction just so we have an answer, even if it’s not a true answer. But then that feels a bit lazy, to just say “I don’t know” and quit wondering about it. Real change rarely happens when people quit asking the questions that matter.

As I was pondering this question, I bumped into a synchronicity. I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest fiction book City of Girls, and right after going back and forth with one of the healers for my book Sacred Medicine, I opened City of Girls to the next page, where I read the following quote from a character who is a WWII veteran and was terribly burned over 60% of his body in the war. After the war, he suffered from severe, intractable PTSD.

He said, “The world ain’t straight. You grow up thinking things are a certain way. You think there are rules. You think there’s a way that things have to be. You try to live straight. But the world doesn’t care about your rules, or what you believe. The world ain’t straight. Never will be. Our rules, they don’t mean a thing. The world happens to you sometimes, is what I think. And people just gotta keep moving through, best they can.”

I don’t pretend to know anymore why bad things happen to innocent people. But it seems like the path to resilience, intimacy, and greater meaning and purpose in life is more about how we adapt to and respond to the many unfair injustices and unearned privileges than about spinning into a frenzy over the question of “Why?” As my teacher Rachel Naomi Remen once told me, “Maybe ‘how’ and ‘why’ are the booby prize.”

When I am suffering, I have found comfort in lighting candles in old churches and walking ancient labyrinths, and going on pilgrimages to the places suffering people go to try to ease suffering. There is something comforting in realizing that even if we don’t know why tragedy befalls innocent people, we can find solace in the sanctuary of knowing we suffer in good company and that we are not nearly as alone as we might think.

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