When I was twenty-three, I traveled around Bangladesh and walked alone into a slum where a million people lived in cardboard and tin shacks on a plane of mud. There I met a woman who was little older than me but looked like she was 80. She was born there and lived her whole life in extreme poverty. She broke bricks with her bare hands for a living. I met this woman because her eight-year-old daughter rescued me from an angry mob.
I found my new friends to be incredibly hard working, compassionate and all-around good people. And I was forced to consider the question of why they lived such terribly hard lives, amid constant misery and sorrow, while I lived relatively easily and had many things handed to me, even though I was born in a shack without an indoor bathroom myself.
In Bangladesh, they had an explanation. Bad karma. Supposedly the little girl who rescued me--a complete stranger--from a crowd of men demanding to know why I had come into their slum, even though I had tried to dress modestly according to local custom, had been naughty in a past life.
Though her eyes shown at me with kindness and innocence, that is one accepted explanation. There was very little chance she would ever be able to go to school or eat a decent meal and if she lived to be 30, she would be haggard, old and fortunate to still be alive.
And something in my spirit rebelled. This idea of karma was no better to me than the talk of hell fire, I heard from Christians back home in America. I was brought up with an alternative spirituality, but I had not been given an alternative explanation of suffering.
Even in much less extreme situations, good fortune appears to be random. I grew up among relatively poor people in rural, remote Eastern Oregon but I managed to travel to five continents and forge a good life for myself, partly because my parents, though poor, were fairly well educated and did not harbor the hopelessness of generational poverty. My experience, moving between many different social classes has shown that there is little correlation between hard work and financial success. The poor are every bit as likely to work hard as the rich, if not more so. Laziness, apathy, depression and addiction happen among the rich and the poor.
Today, as the political battles over things like food stamps, universal health care and free education heat up in the United States, I constantly run across arguments, in which one side claims that poor people aren't committed enough to earning a good living and they just need to work harder or smarter. And the other side claims that the economy is rigged against them or that health, family or other circumstances made a higher income unreachable. Rarely does anyone in the verbal sparring stop to acknowledge that hardship is mostly random and the only real question to argue about is why that is and what, if anything, we wish to do about it.
Spirituality arose among the first humans for two reasons: first, to discuss what happens after we die and whether or not we are just meat with neurons; and second, to answer this question: why do bad things happen at random even to good, hard-working people?
Modern earth-centered and Pagan paths have various but fairly standard interpretations of the first question. As for the second question, it is worth some thought.
If you are the kind of person who believes in gods, whether a primal earth mother, a vague universal spirit or a whole pantheon of gods, then you have to confront the question of whether those gods have any power to affect our lives. Many people today believe that gods are beings that only act through our connection to them or our enlightenment, whether they just all "in our heads" or not. Others believe that spirit or the gods pervade the natural world and are part of us and everything else in the world. Some believe in gods or spirits who are specific beings with relationships to specific humans and that they can give aid, withhold it or even cause harm as they choose.
Either way, it seems like spiritual beings should have some justice to them. What would be the point otherwise? Modern Pagans mostly don't beg their gods for favors in prayers. But we do--well many of us do--ask for help sometimes. And even if you believe that it is only in reflecting in prayer or magical work that you help yourself, you either believe that is beneficial or you're just fooling around with candles and pretty rocks.
And if you're a pantheistic sort of spiritualist, who does not believe in gods per se, but believes that divine energy infuses everything, that nature is filled with sacred energy, then you also must believe there is some reason to acknowledge that creative force. You may not believe that the universe is either benevolent or malevolent. But you still must wonder if there is any point to the randomness of misfortune in our world.
There are also humanists, who do not believe in gods or divine powers or believe that if they do exist they have no power or desire to intervene in our affairs. Humanists may subscribe to the traditions of a spiritual path whether Pagan, Christian or otherwise, but they believe that humans have to deal with our own troubles on our own. While these humanists may not have to deal with the question of why gods let good people suffer, they must in the end discuss the randomness of hardship as well.
It has taken me many years of study to arrive at my own answer to this question, but when I found it, it turned out to be incredibly simple.
Suffering and hardship are random, whether the gods willed it to be that way or not, in order to give us compassion.
I do not believe in karma in the sense that you are punished for some sin in one life by being born to hardship in another. Nor do I believe in divine punishment either in this life or in an afterlife. Certainly we can make our own hardship at times, but the greatest suffering that humans endure is usually acquired at birth and is non-negotiable.
And here's the crucial point. If we truly believed that everyone deserved what they got, either by karma, sin or sloth, and that the world gives everyone an equal, fair shot, then you would have no compassion. And you would be justified in that. It would be correct to have no compassion. It would be foolish and enabling of wrongness to have compassion.
The only reason for compassion is the understanding that much of the pain, hardship, loss and suffering of others is not a result of their cruel, stupid or lazy actions or inactions.
It just is.
No god, goddess, spirit or karma put them there and none will rescue them without our energy and intention. Prayer matters. Physicists can demonstrate it. My personal polytheistic belief is that our gods do care about suffering and may in fact give solace or aid when our intention is strong and positive, but it is not in their nature to banish all suffering. And I am not sure that they would if they could.
When I come closest to my matron goddess at moments of despair, I feel great compassion and caring from that source. But I also have heard a signular message. No one with the power to stop all undeserved suffering in the world would use it. Suffering is terrible, but it is not as terrible as a world of entitled, compassionless light without any understanding of darkness would be.