by Elizabeth Vongvisith
(This post originally appeared as part of an entry in my private journal, and is here edited and expanded for something approaching clarity. The opinions expressed here are my own and not necessarily shared by other contributors to The Gods' Mouths.)
Since I cannot afford seminary school right now, I've been reading books on theology and spiritual discipline, many of which are not about Paganism at all. In fact, most of them aren't. There is a dearth of serious books on Pagan religious theory, sadly enough. Because I want to learn about how to effectively counsel people who come to me for advice or help, I've particularly been looking at books related to pastoral counseling and how to handle hard questions.
One of the books I read was When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. It's not a bad book and seems to be very helpful in understanding and accepting why tragedies happen...if you are a Jew or Christian who isn't particularly caught up in the literal truth of the Bible or the absolute infallibility and omnipotence of God. I had to stop reading it halfway through. It wasn't because it's aimed at a Judeo-Christian audience. It's because I can't honestly say I believe that misfortune never happens because the gods will it so, or that we never deserve what we get.
My gods are wise and powerful, but are not necessarily "nice" -- and that goes for the Aesir and Vanir as well as the Jotnar. They can be scary and hard to understand. They can meddle in people's lives without warning. They sometimes cause bad things to happen to Their folk, while at other times They arrange good things. They answer some prayers while other prayers go ignored. But even if one is "god-bothered" to the degree some of my friends are (and I am), still, I do not believe that the gods or spirits are responsible for every single good or ill that befalls us. And since They have free will of Their own, I also don't believe that we mortals can always influence Them in ways we would find preferable. We can try with prayer and worship, offerings and petitions, showing our faith and trust, even the shaking of fists and making demands...but it doesn't always work.
Kushner writes under the assumption that people never deserve their misfortune. It just happens and nobody can do anything to prevent it. That, in my world-view, is simply not always the case. Sometimes people don't deserve trouble and strife...but sometimes they do. Sometimes they've even had it coming for ages. As to why some people get their comeuppance and others don't, I don't know, but I can't accept the answer that it's because bad things are never attributable to the Divine, as the author of When Bad Things believes. The gods I revere are not above smiting people. They're not even above smiting people for what seem to be entirely petty reasons that make no sense to us. My gods, at least, do not pull punches when They are upset with someone, even if the methods may vary.
In my experience, if something unfortunate happens to someone who's very god-bothered, chances are good that their patron(s) or other tutelary spirits had something to do with it, even if it was just allowing the thing to happen without interference. Now, while not everything can be blamed on Their meddling (perhaps you screwed up your last relationship all on your own) and other people's own destinies have to be taken into account (it was your grandmother's time to die the day after you had to cancel that important ritual), the gods do have a way of making Their influence felt when They tinker in our lives, and no one can see this better than another god-bothered person.
However, most people do not have this degree of divine interference in their lives. In fact, many of us who do didn't always have it, and may have spent a good portion of our lives in the same state of questioning as everyone else. It's easy to forget this if you live surrounded, as I do, by those who have the same kind of intense relationship to the Holy Ones, but it is something I feel that a god-bothered priest shouldn't lose sight of. The so-called "ordinary" folks require somewhat different sorts of counsel from their clergypeople or counselors than a heavily spirit-influenced person might. Why do bad things happen to them? Hearing that question means it's time to get out of my dominant paradigm of god-botheredness and try to look elsewhere for answers.
It would be self-satisfied and dismissive for me to say to someone who has a more distant relationship with the gods something like "Well, obviously you didn't do what Deity X wanted, so you deserve to suffer like this." If they have no way of knowing what Deity X wanted of them in the first place, how can they be blamed? While most god-bothered folks are aware when we've crossed a line with the spirits, even if we don't want to accept it, those who do not have that kind of relationship with their Holy Ones don't need to be castigated for not having faith in beings in whom they might truly have to muster a lot of faith just to believe.
Learning to use divination effectively and accurately is one way to help people understand why shit happens. Another is by doing luck-work, or (magically or otherwise) examining the family history and bloodlines for evidence of a curse, bad orlog or bad karma, or other factors. Depending on who the person is, it may very well be that they did something to mess up their luck. Or they might be the victim of someone else's mistakes or bad judgment, as well as their own. There could be a family curse, an ancestor trying to get their attention, an angry spirit they've offended, some other spiritual cause. Maybe they screwed things up all by themselves. Maybe they'll never know the reason behind their misfortune or trouble. It might be entirely up to them to find meaning in the hard things that happened.
Ultimately, when it comes to explaining why bad things happen to good people, god-bothered or not, I think learning how to approach this is wisdom you can't learn from books. There are always exceptions to the rule, no matter how many times it's played itself out before, and it is also wise to acknowledge this and learn from it. I'll just have to do the best I can, I suppose. Life is complicated, and I don't believe there's a one-size-fits-all answer to every crisis experienced by each follower of a faith or devotee of the gods, anyway. And sometimes there is no real answer to the anguished question of "Why me?" except the one offered by the Haegel rune: you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.