Wise words from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

We are bombarded with news reports of tragedies. Fires, floods and earthquakes make headlines as do the stories of people losing their homes, jobs and nest eggs due to the devastating turmoil in the financial world.

For help making sense of it all, Bottom Line/Personal spoke to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, whose seminal book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has helped millions.

His wise and compassionate counsel on enduring tragedy… what to do about anger… and how to move forward…


Most of us go through life with the belief that the world should be predictable, fair and understandable. Then when we suffer a seemingly unendurable shock — the death of a loved one… loss of a home to fire or flood… or financial devastation — we feel lost.

The psychological blow may be a bigger problem for many people to overcome than the actual damage to property or physical health or other personal loss.

If victims are unwilling to relinquish the idea that the world is understandable, they feel a desperate need to make sense of what has happened. They respond to that need in different ways — blaming, theologizing or philosophizing.

  • Blaming. Some people blame themselves and explain the disaster in terms of their own behavior (“I never should have put my money in stocks”). This approach leaves them feeling guilty… but with the consolation that they are not powerless in a world that is beyond their control.
  • Others spend their time looking to lay blame on others. Why were US banks allowed to run amok? Why wasn’t there more government oversight?

  • Theologizing. Others reconcile themselves to what has happened through the theological belief that the world is run according to a good purpose — but one that is too complicated for human beings to be able to explain all of the details at the time.
  • Example: Was this the wake-up call America needed to adequately address its financial shortfalls?

    Some people try to hold on to that belief but lose it if they do not find a compensating good event occurring for each bad event that happens during the rest of their lives.

  • Philosophizing. A third way to react to disasters is to accept them philosophically as an unpredictable part of life. They may strike anyone at any time and cannot be explained rationally.

    Regardless of their attempts to explain the disaster that has occurred, people have a remarkable capacity to go on with their lives and mobilize their inner strength to respond positively.

    Examples: I once spoke to 5,000 people who gathered in East St. Louis to rebuild their city after a catastrophic flood. When asked to discuss the religious meaning of the flood, I told them it could be found in the way they all helped one another and in their willingness to work together to overcome the effects of the disaster.

    On the morning after 9/11, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani reported that there were too many volunteers at the disaster site. Meanwhile, blood donors lined the streets for blocks outside the city’s trauma centers.

    Human beings tend to demonstrate the spiritual power to transcend disaster both on a mass scale and as individuals. They do this when they band together to recover from earthquakes or floods and when they strive to carry on with family life while dealing with personal tragedies, such as brain-damaged children or parents with Alzheimer’s.

    WHY ME?

    Those who cope effectively have a strong sense of self-esteem. When life deals them crushing blows, they tell themselves, I can get over it.

    Conversely, people who have learned to think of themselves as “no good” regard disasters as justified punishment, and they lack the optimism to build a new life out of the ruins of the old.

    Victims of disaster often ask, “Why me?” To respond effectively, you must understand that it is not really a question but a cry of pain.

    Best: Reassure them by saying, “You are a good person… and what happened was not punishment for something you did.” Disaster victims want consolation, not explanations or exhortations.

  • Don’t tell them to stop complaining and get on with their lives.
  • Do show them that you care by hugging them and holding their hands.
  • Don’t leave them feeling abandoned in their state of need.
  • Do sit with them quietly and show empathy.
  • Allow them to grieve for their loss at their own pace. After a serious trauma, people are entitled to at least one year of not being their normal selves. After a year, you might suggest therapy only if they are frustrated by the pace of their own recoveries, not because you are in a hurry to see them happy.

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