21 March 2011

Why do some people live and some people die?


There seems to have been one horror after another recently. Underneath the collective grief felt by just about everyone, lurks the question, how do we find meaning amidst the calamity?

The floods around Australia, the Christchurch earthquake, the Japanese earthquake and its devastating tsunami, the violent changes in the Middle East. And underneath all this, underneath the daily news, underneath the personal traumas of cancer and heart attacks and road accidents, underneath the tough events of daily life, lurks the question: Why me? Or is it: Why her? Or is it: Why do bad things happen to good people? How do we find meaning amidst our personal and collective traumas?

Out of the floods or the earthquakes emerge heart-warming and miraculous stories of survival. Then often enough we hear how the person next door, or the person clutching at the survivor’s hand did in fact die
Who could not have been deeply affected by the young Japanese man describing holding his father’s hand on one side, his mother’s on the other, only to lose grip and have them both swept away.

In the cancer field, I have observed people doing all it would seem they could do, only to have some live, some die.

What do we make of all this? Do we dare to question it? Do we dare to ask: Why is this so?
Can we go Out on a Limb and ask: Is it just meaningless, random chance or is there a way to understand it all. Is there a rhyme and a reason to it?

First let me say that in my experience, when people are feeling grief strongly, this is often not a useful conversation. Some find it quite confronting.

Who has seen Nicole Kidman’s recent film “Rabbit Hole”? There is a poignant scene where, with her husband, both grief stricken by the accidental death of their 4yr old son, she is sitting in a grief group.

One of the other mothers ventures forth with something like “God just had to take our daughter”.

There is a suitably long pause before she follows with “He needed another angel”.

Nicole boils over, “Why didn’t he just make another one? He is God after all. Just a snap of the fingers, easy as that!” Then she gathers up her husband and walks out.

What we are talking about is the View. The View is the philosophical construct we all have as individuals that informs how we interpret, make sense of, and function in our lives. Whether we are atheists, agnostics or passionate believers in something; those attitudes form our View.

So for the mother above, she appeared to take real solace from believing that God had taken her daughter to be another of His angels. That was her View and it informed her life. It clearly was not Nicole’s character’s View. Maybe for her, it was not even the right time to be contemplating Why? and certainly, rather than comforting her, that notion affronted her.

What then is your own View on how life works? And how does this View inform how you interpret calamity? And the good stuff? Because clearly, some people seem to get all the breaks, have everything go well for them.

My mother died when I was 12. My beloved friend, cleverly disguised as a dog, was run over and killed a week later. Another week later, while on a church school religious retreat, I woke up in my bed with a paedophile, cleverly disguised as one of the male teachers, rubbing up against my back.

My existing View was not up to all this. It did not make sense. I knew I was no angel, but all this did seem a little over the top; certainly a little much for the fairly sheltered life I had been leading up to that time.


Either it makes sense, or it does not. Either there is a way to explain life’s major events, or there is not. Either there is a rhyme and a reason running through all this, or there is not. It has to be one or the other.

The conclusion I came to as a 12 year old was there had to be an explanation, I just did not know what it was. I think I sensed that to take the opposing View, that life is just a series of random, unconnected, unrelated events was simply an invitation to depression and nihilism.

If what we are experiencing now are random events, and as such do not relate to what has occurred in our past, then why would what we do now matter all that much? Does not that View make us powerless before random acts of life, and render us powerless to influence our future?

Now some tell me that it is not depressing, it is just a matter of accepting that is the way that it is. There is nothing more to it; no need to worry, do not take it personally, just accept it and get on with making the most of what life does dish up.

But think of it. If life is random, if there is no cause and effect relationship between our past actions and current situation; if it is all random then we are virtually powerless. Why not take up the nihilistic view of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

For me, even as a 12yr old, that choice seemed rather bleak. If the two alternatives are that life is random and we are powerless, or there is a rhyme and a reason to life that we can learn about and put to good use, and if we cannot be sure which one is really the truth, why not go for the rhyme and reason choice?

At least it is empowering. Also, for those interested in being scientific, it matches with all that is observed in the physical world. There is a fundamental law in physics that says that for every force there is an equal and opposite force. Newton's Third Law sounds a lot like actions have consequences.

If to answer this question rested on making a choice out of belief or faith, I would go with the choice that has the best outcome.

But I do think logic comes into this too. So many things we think and do, do have observable consequences; whether they be profound or subtle, immediate or slow to mature.

Plant an acorn in the right conditions and you can be pretty certain where to find an oak tree in years to come. And you will not find apples growing on its branches.

Do we dare then to think about why some people live and some people die?

The problem with even asking the question is that in the Western world, even just thinking about the question, even just getting a sniff of it, propels some people straight into guilt and blame and shame and wanting to defend people and attack people and to feeling anger and feeling a whole range of heavy duty emotions.

In my experience it is tricky.

Certainly I have been in groups where people have exploded over this one.

So actually, I am going to leave it here for this week. What is your own reaction to the question? Do you have a View about it? What about family or friends? Know someone you want to share this blog with?

How do you interpret calamity and how do you interpret bounty when it does come your way?

Next week, Out on a Limb will go deeper into that big question: Why do bad things happen to good people?



The Dragon’s Blessing: Guy Allenby. My biography that recounts how my own View emerged and developed, how it informed the tough times and the bountiful ones.

You Can Conquer Cancer: Ian Gawler. For the chapters on death and dying and philosophy.

Coping With Grief: Mal McKissock. Very useful and succinct manual on grief. A must read as a life skill.


Understanding Death, Helping the Dying: Ian Gawler. Good to listen to with those you are really close to and use as a focus for discussion.

Counselling and Groups

NALAG National Association for Loss and Grief

The Gawler Foundation


  1. Thank you Ian, I enjoy reading your blog. I will be thinking about this one for most of the week and I look forward to reading your next blog. Both huge questions to ponder.
    Take care, Jane

  2. This is a tough issue and one I have wrestled with a lot. Thanks for putting options and something to think about. Most of my friends dont want to know about this. They think it is to do with blame and some get quite upset by it. Personally, one has to wonder.

  3. For me it seems after long thought a matter of cause and effect, sometimes too deep for us to understand, but definitely there. I know in my own life this is certainly the case and it has given me a view of life that copes with all the nasties that can pop up.

  4. Well done Ian and thank you for raising such a deep issue which promotes really deep thought in all of us. I shall certainly be spending more time in clarifying My View and I do look forward to your next blog. Julia.

  5. I know this comment is latish, but while I agree with Ian that we do have choice and that there is a cause and effect, there are things that we have to accept and which does limit the choice we have available to us. For example, our genes can have a large say in cancer generation. So I am not convinced by his argument - Nature vs Nurture has a lot more to it than what we can directly influence.