The Problem of Evil and the Silver Lining of Adversity
Many people use the existence of Evil in the world as some kind of evidence that God does not exist, with the assumption that a loving God who wants the best for his children would not allow them to suffer. This is a naive restatement of that position, I realize – the debate has more to do with unnecessary suffering. But what is unnecessary suffering and what is necessary suffering?
Seery (2011) has shown that there might be an adaptive level of suffering that provides benefits to the person experiencing it. Previous research in adversity suggested that negative life events and mental health problems have a generally positive linear relationship. In other words, the more adversity people experience, the more mental health problems they develop. However, Seery suggests that this is not entirely accurate. By examining the relationship between self-reported cumulative number of adverse life events and four mental health indicators (global distress, functional impairment, life satisfaction, and PTS symptoms), Seery found that there is actually a U-shaped curve involved, as we see from the chart to the right.
You’ll notice that those with extremely low and extremely high numbers of adverse experiences in their lives are the ones with the worst mental health (according to those four domains), but those in the middle actually do the best. This means that there is actually an optimal amount of adversity that is beneficial to a person – people who have experienced some adversity are more satisfied with their lives than those who have experienced no adversity!
According to Seery, this may be because experiencing some distress allows people the opportunity to “master” their reactions and emotions, thus honing their coping skills. This allows them to experience the normal ups and downs in life much better than those who never had those opportunities.
Now what does this say about the Problem of Evil? It does indicate that some amount of suffering can be beneficial. This reminds me of Saint Irenaeus, who developed a set of ideas that was later made into a complete theodicy which included the idea that suffering was something needed to build one’s soul and progress. However, certainly it can be admitted that the very existence of the curve in this study shows that there are some people who suffer more (or less) than what is necessary to have good mental health – at least on these four indicators. In fact, the mean is actually a bit higher than the optimal amount of adversity, meaning that more people experience a greater-than-optimal amount of suffering in their lives! So perhaps a study like this might show why some suffering is necessary for humans, but it doesn’t answer why all suffering is (especially the most extreme).
As a side note, this study also makes me wonder about cultures that have difficult, painful, or tedious “rites of passage” for children to pass into adulthood (the example I immediately thought of was the Satere-Mawe people of the Brazilian Amazon). It would seem that cultures recognize that some adversity is beneficial, so much so that adversity is intentionally inflicted on young people to prepare them for being productive adults in their societies. However, some (like the Satere-Mawe bullet ant initiation) seem so extreme that any beneficial result from this inflicted adversity would seem unlikely. More research needs to be done across cultures on this subject.
Seery, M. D. (2011). Resilience: A silver lining to experiencing adverse life events? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 390-394.