Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Problem of Good

I have just read Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty, a memoir of her long friendship with Lucy Grealy -- two writers of very different temperaments who met in college and independently achieved a considerable measure of literary success.

Grealy had survived a bout with cancer as a child that left her face severely disfigured and most of her teeth gone. She was a vivacious, talented young woman, with many friends of both sexes, who desperately wanted to be beautiful -- and to be loved by a man -- so much so that she endured thirty-eight horrific reconstructive surgeries. Truth & Beauty is a story with many moments of tenderness and joy, that ends tragically with Grealy's death by overdose.

I put the book down with that age-old question on my mind -- why do bad things happen to good people? Why cancer for a child? Why beauty at all if beauty is so vulnerable to arbitrary obliteration?

The Problem of Evil, it is called in the long history of philosophy: If God is omniscient, all-powerful, and loving, why are innocents afflicted? The answers to the riddle have been various, and never satisfying. Ann Pachett's book is itself an answer of sorts. (I will leave aside the question of whether Pachett's book intruded unfairly upon the grief of Grealy's family.)

But perhaps the Problem of Evil starts with the wrong premise.

Nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a fig for human conceptions of love and justice. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies, suns explode with a violence that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth, causing planetwide extinctions.

Violence and death are the engines of life. To persist, living creatures must take matter and energy from their environment. As life proliferates, competition for resources becomes inevitable. Aggression is advantageous, even necessary. If nature were not cruel (a human concept), conscious creatures such as ourselves would never have evolved. As Loren Eiseley wrote: "Instability lies at the heart of the world."

From nature's point of view, there is no such thing as the Problem of Evil: order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the twin principles of nature's creative force. Love or justice have nothing to do with it.

But our brains are of sufficient complexity to give rise to that mysterious thing known as self-awareness -- and to notions of love and justice. What humans uniquely face is the Problem of Good: How to create on this tiny planet an oasis of peace. Food for the hungry. A cure for cancer. An end to intraspecies violence. Solicitous stewardship of the planet.

The loyalty of Lucy Grealy's friends, their loving, selfless care, suggests that the Problem of Good is not intractable. That Americans of all races recently installed a black family in the White House evinces movement in the right direction. Lifespans extend. Diseases are eliminated or held at bay. Natural disasters evoke worldwide relief. Reconstructive surgery for cancer victims becomes ever more effective. As Margaret Mead once pointed out, the circle of those whom we do not kill has steadily expanded throughout human history. The optimists among us imagine that the circle will ultimately embrace the entire planet.