Lately, it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic — from the London riots to international terrorism to the economy — by asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilisation. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: “Bad things” occur and “good people” never cause them. “Badness”, it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control — more often than not, in somebody else.
The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a “bad thing” produce a “good” result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone “evil” so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?
Once, on the Tube, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near “all the bad people”. The little girl scrutinised the face of each passenger preparing to exit the train. Then, puzzled, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mum,” she said timidly. “How can you tell which are the bad ones?”
These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when some friends in Surrey discovered, much to their chagrin, that someone had nicked their recycling bin. The bin, after all, had been marked all over with their address in permanent ink against such an event.
And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbour who took the container had actually returned it near to the front of my friends’ house, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup! Apparently, the vandal not only recycles — he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!
What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another’s motivations?
The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgement? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody needing a visit to Specsavers?
In the ancient wisdom monologue Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, (“I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”), a pious man concludes that we could never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us. But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with love or hate, anger or kindness… with creativity.
During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, aubergine and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailors. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity. In the words of Langton Hughes, he was free within himself.
In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of my friends’ bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions — from grumbling about un-neighbourliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed — another idea emerged. What about… phoning the council to request another container? And having it ready — adorned with a bow — to present to the “stealth recycler”?
The phone call took less than 10 minutes — a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had my friends’ irritation gone unchecked. Now, the scenario had shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as a sense of equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, they might even laugh about it together.
Maybe life is just one big salvage operation. Recycling love — now there’s the ultimate haul!