Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason

Warning: The first bit of this piece contains a hearty gripe. Stick with me: except for occasional outbursts, the kvetching doesn’t last past the first couple of paragraphs, and there really is a point.

As people who are close to me know (and as people who follow the blog closely may have guessed), the last month or two has been among the lousiest times of my life. I’ve had worse months — months of death, of divorce, of serious family illness. But in terms of the sheer stupid dogpiling of badness upon badness, I’m hard-pressed to think of another that’s sucked more. It’s not just been the pneumonia and my cat dying; I’ve been dealing with other health problems (mostly behind me now, but it wasn’t fun); a trip to the emergency room for Ingrid (she’s totally fine now, but it was a scary few hours); a small but painful second- degree burn; missing the queer contra dance camp because I was sick; and my hard drive crashing. (Yes, I’ve been doing backups; no, I haven’t been doing them often enough, and I lost some work that I really did not want to lose.)

It’s getting to the point where it’s almost comical, except that I lost my sense of humor about a week and a half ago. Along with my patience. But of course, you can lose your patience all you want to with bad things in your life, and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference — you still have to endure them.

I don’t bring all this up to cadge sympathy, or to dump on you. I bring it up because of this: This has been the kind of month (two-month? fortmonth? bimonth?) that would make believers in God wonder what they were being punished for. It’s the kind of bimonth that, back in my woo days when I believed that everything happened for a reason, would have made me rack my brains trying to figure out what the fuck it was that the universe was trying to teach me. (Amazing, isn’t it: the arrogance of thinking that the universe arranges itself around you in order to personally teach you a lesson.)

But I don’t think that. Any of it. And I’m so glad that I don’t think any of it, I can’t even tell you.

I know that religion is repeatedly defended as a source of comfort in difficult times. But this has been one of the more difficult times in my life… and I’ve been finding that my atheistic, skeptical, rational view of my difficulties is more comforting than any religious belief I’ve ever held, or could ever imagine holding.

So here is my atheist, skeptical, rational look at why runs of bad luck happen.

1. Just plain luck. Anyone who studies statistics will tell you that, in any random sequence that’s long enough, mini-sequences will show up that look like patterns. Pseudopatterns, they’re called. You roll a pair of dice for long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get snake-eyes ten times in a row. And that’s some of what this run of bad luck is about. A good example is my cat dying and my hard drive crashing. Nothing to do with each other, as far as I can tell. They just happened to happen in roughly the same time frame. When a lot of it happens in a row, it can feel like a pattern, with intention behind it… but that doesn’t mean it is.

2. Bad things can cause other bad things to happen. If you’re tired, stressed, distracted, sleep- deprived, etc. from a bad thing happening, you’re more likely to make serious mistakes, get into accidents, and/or get sick. Ingrid and I are convinced that this is why she had her trip to the emergency room: it happened in the middle of Catfish’s final illness, and Ingrid was upset and distracted and not looking where she was going. And I think it’s very likely that the dogpile of stress was a big factor in my getting pneumonia. (At the doctor’s visit when the pneumonia was diagnosed, my blood pressure, normally in the very healthy vicinity of 120/70, was 144/87.)

3. Bad things make you less able to cope with other bad things… thus making them feel worse than they otherwise would. I don’t think pneumonia is ever a picnic… but I think I’d be handling it with a lot more patience and good humor if it hadn’t come at the tail end (what I hope is the tail end, what bloody well better be the tail end) of this ridiculous run of shitty luck.

4. Big bad things make you more conscious of, and more sensitive to, little bad things. This, I think, is a big one. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to take the ordinary bumps of life in my stride, even to have a sense of humor about them, to make them part of the overall optimistic pattern of my life. But in the last month, every little inconvenience and annoyance has been magnified by stress. Ingrid getting a cold, a stain on our nice bedspread, the store being out of the kind of tea that I like… all of it gets magnified into One More Fucking Thing I Have To Deal With This Month. All of it seems like part of the pattern. The non-existent pseudopattern.

Or, to sum it all up in a couple of words: Shit Happens.

So where’s the comfort in all this?

Here is the comfort:

I know what’s happening.

I understand what’s happening.

So I’m not afraid of it.

And I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

I don’t have to add guilt to the dogpile. I don’t have to add the shameful and frightened feeling that the dogpile is a punishment for some unknown sin. I don’t have to add sleepless nights trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve done to deserve this, what lesson is being taught me that I’m too dense to learn. I don’t have to feel like it’s my fault. (Okay, not backing up my data often enough was my fault… but other than that.) I don’t have to take it personally.

Now, I understand that “not taking it personally” is itself hard for many people. If shit happens simply because shit happens, and not to teach you a lesson, then the shit can seem both meaningless and out of control. Believing that runs of bad luck are punishment for some sin is a way to give your suffering meaning… and it’s a way to convince yourself that you have it in your power to prevent it from happening again.

But given a choice between thinking that the meaning of my suffering is “Shit happens,” and that the meaning of my suffering is “You’re a bad person,” I’ll take “Shit happens” any day. And given a choice between spending my life in a desperate, futile attempt to figure out which set of rituals and sacrifices I need to make to appease my god and prevent the shit from happening again — and instead having some sort of reasonable expectations and wisdom about what in my life I can and cannot change — I’ll take the latter in a heartbeat.

Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason
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12 thoughts on “Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason

  1. 1

    This is the same thing I discovered since leaving religion behind me. I used to be convinced there was a reason for everything and I would drive myself crazy trying to rationalize some explanation for all of it. I would make a basket case out of myself while I was waiting for god to solve my problem. Once I got god out of my life, however, I began to realize that shit happens to me quite a lot but that’s all it is. Not some great lesson to be learned. We just survived the worst year of our lives, we were on the verge of losing our house and everything. My mother died horribly. My cat got killed by another cat we wanted to adopt. The list goes on. But I am so glad that the thought of god never entered my mind. I am quite sure I would have gone off the deep end back when I was a believer.
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time and really enjoy your insights but I haven’t commented before. Frank

  2. 5

    Its weird that, although I was raised Catholic, I never felt like god was punishing me by doing things. Living in NYC does that. There are so many amoral, murderous snakes who are rich, up to their ears in pussy, have nice cars, lots of friends and so on – that I never believed god had anything to do with it. I never believed that their Heaven or Hell would be any different than that of the less fortunate.
    What I am working on is the notion of karma. When I was married, I picked up my ex’s bad habit of being nasty to people – flaming them in email and so on. After he bailed, I wanted to wipe up my karma, so I changed a lot of behaviors and was very quickly rewarded and felt so much better. Currently, I am grappling with karma in that I used to date guys and dump them prematurely and now they are doing that to me.
    In my rational moments, I am working on remembering that my karmic cleanup of 1989 was to start volunteer work at the AIDS grove, which meant that I made friends with two dozen *fabulous* gay men, who had the *best* potlucks. Three of them were professional landscapers and I can put together a kick-ass garden design. Karma? No. Meeting good people. Hells yeah. I now am the jedi master of dogs and cats and zoo animals.
    The dating thing is a hard one. Sometimes I feel like I am being punished. I’ve been dumped 4 times in less than a year. But the rational part of me is thinking that *I* am more tolerant and not dumping them and they are discovering the incompatibilities (or lack of chemistry or they’re just assholes) and taking action before me.
    Still hurts, tho’.
    I’m sorry you’ve had a shit sandwich of a year, hon. I wish there was something I could do to cheer you up. Perhaps, when you are feeling better, I can bring over my bottle of St. George absinthe and we can have a cocktails while playing FLUXX and spoiling the kitties.

  3. 6

    Nice post. I’m sorry you’ve had such a lousy time of it lately. You’re absolutely right in chalking it up to the fact that much of life is random and beyond our control; therefore, shit happens. It’s frustrating when lots of it happens at once, but I’m glad to see that you’re making your way through it.

  4. 7

    Hmm. “Lord, give me the wisdom to know what I can change, and the skill to make up insane, stupid and/or absurd excuses for all the ones I can’t figure out.” Right? Or am I misremembering? lol

  5. Vic

    Hi Greta – long-time lurker, and I’ve commented once or twice in the dim past. Let me get the ‘I love your blog’ out of the way, because I have another option I wonder if you’ve considered for the current string of ‘bad luck’:
    Confirmation bias?
    Admittedly this is a stretch, but I wonder if thinking this couple of months is so bad is because the bad things are just so bad that they might have overshadowed any good things/times you had in the same period. You know, the highs were there, but not as high as the lows were low…?
    (Just a thought – and a tipsy one at that. The only thing worse than drunk commenting is drunk blogging, so maybe that’s it…)
    In any case, I give you whatever best wishes I can, and kudos for your blogging. I hope circumstances improve soon.

  6. 10

    Spanish Inquisitor showed me the way to you! Excellent post and one I can relate to and appreciate.
    In my ‘believing days’ when I was being served up one “shit sandwich” (Love that, Elaine!) after another I came to believe that I was being tested. Tested by God. I just never knew exactly what I was being tested on. My strength or lack thereof? My kindness or lack thereof? My integrity or lack thereof? But it was never clear to me whether I passed or failed.
    Although I don’t like “shit sandwiches,” I can choke them down a lot better now knowing they’re not being served up by God to test my human skills. Man can’t live on “shit sandwiches” alone…wash ’em down with a cold brew and know that the laws of probability can’t work against you forever.

  7. 12

    When you write:
    “I know what’s happening.
    I understand what’s happening.
    So I’m not afraid of it.
    And I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”
    It seems that you have, uncharacteristically, failed to understand one important aspect of religious psychology -it is (falsely) empowering. When you accept the true causes of the bad things that has happened to you, you most often admit your helplessness to do anything about it and that it might occur again and there is nothing you can do about it. That is psychologically hard to deal with.
    A religious person who believes that bad things happened because he did not pray enough certainly puts unnecessary guilt on himself -but he gives (false) meaning to his suffering and he gives himself (false) hope of stopping it.
    A lot of people will take guilt over helplessness any day.

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