Why do bad things happen to good people – should that be the question?

by Tess McKinley, Middle School English Language Arts teacher

This is my seventh year at NSCS on the Lynn campus, but my background, before becoming a teacher, was in the professional theater. Since having my three children and reentering the working world as an English teacher, I have returned to the stage – both acting and directing.

From 2013-2016, I led the NSCS Theater Workshops and, along with my husband Dan, organist and choir director at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, directed the NSCS productions of Narnia in 2014, A Secret Garden in 2015, and Oliver in 2016.

Since then, I have formed The Imago Stage Company, which produces classic redemptive stories as an outreach to the North Shore. Our purpose is to engage the imagination of our audiences in ways that are spiritually transformational.

From November 15-24, we will present Jane Eyre, the Musical at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers. It is a story of desperate, broken, and abused characters who find redemption through frightening – yet sometimes hilarious – circumstances.

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In my teaching of English, as well as my involvement in theater, I like to examine the various choices characters might have made that would have changed the course of their lives. Our study of classic literature teaches us about the struggle between good and evil and the ultimate redemption possible to those who seek God, the selfless path, and choices prompted by love.

One of the questions the story of Jane Eyre prompts is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A few years ago, pop singer Kelly Clarkson wrote a best-selling song with lyrics taken from the writings of Frederick Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Yet, in times of crisis or despair, we shake our fists at God and ask “Why?”

Jane Eyre, as an innocent child, is subjected to ridicule and abandonment. Life moves from bad to worse when her aunt, Mrs. Reed, forces her to spend her young life in a religiously legalistic school for girls which forces her to conform to unreasonable restrictions. As a governess, she is repeatedly scorned by the the beautiful and talented Miss Ingram and the other social elites.

Just as Jane’s imprisoned spirit is poised for flight in her admitted love for Mr. Rochester, her greatest hopes are dashed when her marriage is aborted, and she is thrust once again into the unforgiving world where she must make her way alone. Confronted with an offer of missionary work coupled with cold duty to a passionless husband, St. John, she flees back to Thornfield Hall, once again seeking a glimpse of a life that might have been. There, she finds destruction and desolation and the maimed shell of the man she loves.

Jane’s journey, like ours, is fraught with pitfalls, unexpected crises, trials, and injustice. Why?

God’s representative, the church, has not always been helpful in answering this plea. Mr. Brocklehurst, the legalistic and hypocritical schoolmaster at the Lowood School, imposes harsh conditions on the girls as punishment for their sins and the penance required to purge their souls. He makes life a hell on earth. The emotionally repressed St. John considers sacrifice, denial, and a rigid adherence to duty as the only appropriate response to God, resulting in a stoic and austere offer of a loveless marriage to Jane. Helen, in contrast, looks not to the church’s earthly representatives, but submits to God himself, whom she describes as forgiving and loving, whose purposes on earth are for our ultimate good even when they are unexplainable.

It is Helen’s response that frustrates the young Jane. Jane understands anger, fear, intimidation, and the desire for revenge. But forgiveness? How can she look beyond the immediate to see the fruit of suffering promised for sometime in the future? Yet it is Helen’s goodness, compassion, and love that draw Jane.

Jane has learned from Helen that she is created in the image of God and has value in spite of her circumstances. She does not allow the Brocklehursts and Ingrams in her life to define her. The question for Jane is not “Why is this happening to me?” but rather, “How must I go through this?” Her choices – to respect herself, to follow her desires, to look to the future, to submit to a plan that is larger in scope than her immediate understanding – allow her to become the victor rather than the victim of her circumstances.

Mr. Rochester, who makes the self-sacrificing choice to humanely care for his mentally impaired wife, attempts to numb the pain of suffering by avoiding it. He rebels against his circumstances turning to a life of dissipation and indulgence. When his genuine prospect of happiness in a marriage to Jane is thwarted by the reality of his preexistent marriage, he grasps desperately to his false reality and sinks into depression and isolation. However, even in his despair, he selflessly, although unsuccessfully, risks his own life to save that of his mad wife – the cause of his suffering. Although he has made many poor choices, he ultimately has remained true to his spousal responsibility, and eventually comes to accept a higher plan and broader vision of his life, and is rewarded with physical and emotional healing.

Jane is rewarded in the end because of her patience, adherence to the dictates of her heart, and her trust in a loving God whose ways are higher than ours and whose thoughts are beyond our understanding. Her choice to respond to crises through this lens makes the difference.

We, too, are the product of our decisions and our willingness or unwillingness to submit to a higher authority with a broader plan. Bad things do happen to good people, but this story encourages us to ask not “why” but “how” we might respond.