Accepting the Bad with the Good

If you could take every negative thing that has happened, is happening, or will ever happen to you in your entire life and get it all over with at once—like one ten-year period of absolute hell—and then have the rest of your life for sheer joy… would you do it?


I remember taking intro to philosophy in college. Of course, one of the topics we discussed was the existence of a god or gods. A popular argument for the lack of god was the existence of evil, or bad. If God is perfectly powerful and perfectly good, why would he make evil at all? Why make his creations suffer? The fact that we have to suffer proves there is no god, some argued.

But there is a counter-argument for that line of thought. Quite simply, bad is necessary to appreciate good. If everyone in the world were safe, healthy, content, and blessed, how could they appreciate it? With nothing to compare your happiness to, wouldn’t happiness just become the norm? These people argue that God created bad to highlight good.

Regardless of your stance on the existence of God, this is an intriguing concept. I suppose it’s like leaving your loved ones. Have you ever gone on a trip, only to appreciate your spouse/parents/friends that much more when you came back? Absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder.

All of this is pretty highly theoretical, I think. It’s easy enough to say that without bad we couldn’t appreciate good, but no one can really test the theory. It seems plausible, to me, that if I were happy all the time I would just be happy. I wouldn’t need contrast to prove how I feel.

On a more testable scale, do people with rough lives appreciate the high points more fully than those who rarely have bad things happen to them? Is the recovered, employed, homeless drug addict more appreciative for what he’s gone through?

And yes, maybe it doesn’t even matter. The bottom line is that we have bad and we have good. We might as well use what we have to love what we have.

Still, I can’t help wonder, is it possible that everyday life is enough to make us grateful? Do we need dramatic highs and lows to love what we have?

Which brings me back to my original question. Do you think bad is necessary to appreciate good? And if you could get it all over with at once… would you do it?

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  • Great questions, Annie. I agree with you – we need the contrast.

    I would take the 10-year option . . . but only if there was a way to really heal from all those years of hell. It’s hard to try to live in joy with old wounds hanging around inside of you that you feel you’ve outgrown but somehow you can’t seem to ease them. I’ve tried just about every healing thing you could name (and some you’ve never heard of) to try to get back to normal, and to a noticeable degree it has worked. I can do things I couldn’t do before that bring me fulfillment. But whenever the deepest wounds get triggered, nothing helps – even though I know all the positive remedies inside out and backwards. So I don’t know the answer on that one.

    I do think it helps with appreciation. For instance, having been a severe insomniac for years, I appreciate sleep more than most people I know. One friend sees it as a waste of time and sleeps as little as possible. To me, sleep is absolutely precious. And I understand its healing benefits intimately.

    • These are all good points, Milli. I don’t know if healing would happen in this hypothetical or not. I mean, if it’s bad enough that the echo of pain becomes its own negative, I suppose it would be “gotten over with” earlier, like the other negatives. But if it is mute enough to allow for joy, then it might hang around in the background. I guess it all depends on the level of pain.

      I would never claim to appreciate sleep as much as an insomniac (that would be pretty presumptuous, wouldn’t it?), but I will say that I appreciate sleep a lot. A LOT. It’s one of my top five favorite things to do in life. Seriously. To paraphrase a stand-up comedian I once heard, the first thing I think when I wake up is, “I can’t wait to do that again.” I’ve never struggled with insomnia, so I don’t know what difference that would make in my thoughts on sleep, but I can say that I can’t imagine appreciating it much more than I already do. So… does that challenge the whole appreciation stance? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting to think about.

      Thanks for your thoughtful input, as always!

  • “Be grateful for every scar life inflicts on you. Where we’re unhurt is where we are false. Where we’re wounded and healed is where our real self gets to show.” – a fictional quote, from a fictional book in Clarie Dewitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran.

    Yeah, there’s no other way to live your life than as it comes. – me.

    Yes, bad is necessary. Wrote a short story in the class I took at the beginning of the year which was a retelling of Adam and Eve. Essentially it boiled down to Eve taking a bite of the fruit because she was BORED OUT OF HER MIND.

    Of course then she is immediately aware of the fact that a sports bra could have saved her a lot of pain rompng around the garden and that Adam has become a hideous slob, lounging around having fruit drop into his mouth and calling forth animals for sacrifice instead of going on adrenaline fueled hunts (well except the chickens…they always ran…) 

    Anyway, point is that evil, strife, hardship – it is all part of life. You take it out, you’ve got a pretty empty existence.

    • That story sounds kind of hilarious. And yes, that pretty perfectly sums up that line of thought. I’m not totally sure I agree with it, but I don’t disagree, either. I guess I can see both sides, which is why I was curious to pose this question. Eve in a sports bra…

  • I never liked this argument, that we need the bad to appreciate the good. It makes way more sense when applied to comfortable middle-class Americans than to the millions upon millions of legitimately miserable people in the world. My life, for example, has so far been free of terrible suffering. I’ve had unpleasant moments, but nothing major. In that context, sure, the bad moments serve to offset the numerous good ones.

    But there are a lot of people in the world whose lives consist mainly of misery. Let’s say, for example, that you’re born into a poor village somewhere, forced into prostitution as a child, physically beaten on a regular basis, and then die at age 12 from AIDS. I don’t think you can reasonably argue that a good god would put someone through that sort of life just so the person could feel grateful for the occasional pleasant experience.

    So I think the utility of pain depends greatly on the amount of pain. I also think, though, that in the context of this world, it would be impossible to wire a functioning human brain to experience only pleasure and never pain. Pain and pleasure are very fundamental to the way our brains work. They motivate and teach, and are therefore critical to survival. If we had neither, our experiences wouldn’t matter to us at all, and we would probably sit around like lumps and die of starvation.However, if the pain-free life is one in which your brain does function normally, and you simply don’t experience significant suffering, I think that would be worth the slight drop in appreciation.

    • Love everything you’ve said here. I think perspective is very important, as you’ve pointed out. It’s easy for people with little suffering to say suffering makes us stronger. But what about those who are overwhelmed by it with so little relief? I definitely agree with you there.

      And yes, there are quite a few flaws with this hypothetical–as there are with most, I think–but assuming that none of them were fatal (as @facebook-1676946610:disqus pointed out on Twitter), you would take the suffering all at once to get it over with? Interesting!

      Great debate, well said. Thanks Amanda!

      • Oh no, I definitely wouldn’t take the suffering all at once. I don’t think I would be able to think of the appropriate decade of my life. I suppose the twenties wouldn’t be so bad if I were guaranteed happiness for the rest of my life – at 30 you can still have a family and start really getting a career together. But really, I’d much prefer a more even distribution of misery.

  • Paula

    Oh Annie…I just love your blog, this is such a good question! 

    Like you said, it seems that if a person was happy all the time then all they’d know is happiness.

    However, there’s the existence of imagination.

    It seems that we humans were designed to imagine a variety of possibilities (some plausible, some not) in order to assist us in problem-solving.

    So, even if we were happy all the time, we would undoubtedly use our imaginations to wonder what it was like to NOT be happy.  This would result in our desire to work for continued happiness by ruling out actions that would lead to unhappiness.

    For example, a child who has never been burned see’s a hot stove and stays away from it.
    Why? Because, though they’ve had the happy fortune of never having been burned, they’ve been verbally warned about the consequences of touching a hot stove and so have used their imagination to conjure up a mental picture of what might happen and how they might feel if they touched the stove.

    So, though the child continues to be happy, they’re also very much aware of the unhappiness that would result in touching the stove- thus, they avoid it.

    The child’s appreciation of not being burned hinged on two factors: the verbal warning and their own imagination.

    With this in mind, a second example would be that of driving a car.

    I’ve never had a car suddenly burst into flames while I’m driving it.

    But, I’ve heard about this happening to other people and I’m grateful that it hasn’t happened to me.

    Still…I don’t stop to think about this every day (arriving at my destination and performing a poorly executed happy-dance while exclaiming, “Yay! Another day of my car not bursting into flames!!)

    However, I think that if I had more knowledge of the way a car worked, I WOULD, on a daily basis, stop to marvel at the design and intricacies of what causes it to function properly.

    This appreciation of my car wouldn’t come from my having been in tons of accidents or it bursting into flames on me, but the appreciation would come from my knowledge of cars.

    I think the same is true of our existence.

    When we stop to learn about various aspects of existence (biology, physics, psychology, etc…) we develop an appreciation for life which results in happiness.

    This type of appreciation isn’t the result of having been through trauma, it’s the result of learning.

    Now, learning can happen via knowledge of another person’s trauma.

    If we go back to the example of the child at the hot stove.

    Suppose the child’s parent had been badly burned years ago, and for this reason the parent emphatically told their child to be careful of the stove…the child learns from their parent’s bad experience. 

    So, again, it seems that appreciation comes from the acquisition of knowledge.

    I’d say that the acquisition of knowledge can occur via one’s own personal experience, by observing the experiences of others (firsthand or passed down), by accepting trustworthy guidelines that have been set by a higher power, or by coming to theorized conclusions based on one’s own observation/imagination. 

    In any case, it seems that learning is what leads to appreciation…and happiness.

    (Thanks for getting us all to stop and consider such a thought-provoking question…I’m going to be thinking about this all day now!)

    • Paula, I love both of those analogies, especially the stove. I think you make a good argument against contrast and for knowledge as the source of appreciating happiness. So perhaps it isn’t suffering at all that makes life meaningful, but the knowledge of it. Another very interesting point. I love hearing what you all think about this!

  • My first impulse was to say, Yup, lay it all on me and get it over with. But then I thought, Jeez, if you have 10 years of sheer hell, would it beat you down so thoroughly that you’d be too
    numbed-out to appreciate the joy? So I think an equal sprinkling would be more tolerable, at least for me.

  • My first impulse was to say, Yup, lay it all on me and get it over with. But then I thought, Jeez, if you have 10 years of sheer hell, would it beat you down so thoroughly that you’d be too numbed-out to appreciate the joy? So I think an equal sprinkling would be more tolerable, at least for me.

    • I imagine you probably would be, although this is hypothetical, so maybe it’s just a matter of assuming you’d still be able to feel joy by the time it’s done. I’m with you, though, I don’t think I’d get it over with.

  • Caitlin

    I think there’s just as much beauty in suffering as there is in happiness. I don’t regret one single experience, good or bad, because I’m just grateful to be alive. Whenever I’m depressed as hell, I sometimes sit still outside and try to focus on feeling the breeze on my face and nothing else. It’s such an intense feeling that I don’t even bother to recognize whenever I’m happy.

    • I feel exactly the same way, although I do think we’re in the minority with that sentiment. There are others, though. Did you see the quote I tweeted yesterday? Mary Oliver said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” I think that pretty much captures it, don’t you?

  • I agree with the people who say 10 years of hell would be too much all at once. Something like that changes a person. Sure you might get your bliss afterwards, but by then, you’re so closed up and bitter, it would take you at least another 10 years to get over it, in the smallest degree. You’ll never be the same person you could have been had it been dealt a little differently.

    As for why bad happens, I’m not quite sure what I believe. I’m not sure what purpose it serves or if the good could be enjoyed without the bad, or if that’s just something we tell ourselves to make it go down a little easier. There must be a point, right? Or else we have to subscribe to the chaos theory. And if life is nothing but random chaos, good and bad, then where does God fit in? 

    It’s something I think about often. And I think that’s probably why I write fiction about bad things happening to people, lol! 😉

    • I like the idea that this is part of why writers write about
      bad thing happening to people. Part of it, I’m sure, is just that bad things
      make for exciting plots, but I’d like to think there’s more to it. Maybe it’s
      our way of sorting out some our own bad things, or maybe it’s a way of imposing
      control over what looks like chaos.

      I am so antsy to read your book, btw. It’s toward the top of
      my list, but I keep getting library books that are suddenly ready from year-old
      waiting lists, and I only have 1 month to read them. >.< Gr. But now I
      know I'll be thinking about bad things and chaos theory when I do get to crack
      yours open! Hehe.

  • At first, I thought, “Heck! Get it all over with!” But then I began to wonder if 10 years of absolute hell would do such a number on your psyche that you’d never recover enough to enjoy the joyful–that you’d be so damaged and cynical that you would forever be waiting for the next shoe to drop. So I think I’d rather have it sprinkled here and there–a tiny bit more bad at the start so that by the time you need the good at the end, you’d have a surplus and could really enjoy it.

  • Okay, wow–this is a deep post. It reminds of something I read in a happiness book by Dennis Prager, which I think makes a lot of sense. It is this: it is best to try and live each day as a 7–or at least learn to be satisfied as a 7. Because when you’re always striving for a 10, you’re always disappointed. And when you get to a 10, there’s only one direction to go from there. 

    • Heh, thanks Nina! And I actually love the concept of aiming for a 7. I’d never heard that before, but it definitely makes sense. I think I will try that out today and see how it feels. =)

      • -j-

        Nina’s comment reminds me of the study they did that said bronze medal Olympic winners are happier than silver medal winners because they’re focused on ,”Damn! I made it onto the podium!” while silver medal recipients are feeling the loss of the gold.

        Interesting, right?

        I think I’d take the good with the bad and avoid 10 years of straight hell. I’m a wuss. 😉

        • Yes! That sound just about right, actually. So in that line of thinking, you’re not a wuss at all. Just a smartie.

  • Regina

    In my religion we are taught that God did not create evil. Evil is a byproduct of His gift of free will. Without free will we would be about as lifelike as animated rocks. We’d make no choices because we would not be free to do so. God created us for Love, but loving is meaningless if it is not done freely. Thus we must have free will to truly be able to love. Sadly, that free will means we can also do less than love, which results in evil. It’s really more complicated than that, but that’s the skeleton argument for why God did not create evil and yet evil exists in the world. It is also the beginnings of the argument for  why he does not eradicate the evil we create. Because doing so would have repercussions on free will.

    Our free will is one of several ways we are “made in His likeness and image”.

    • I guess this gets into The Big Argument, doesn’t it? (Always a risk when I use religious philosophy as an example.) I think, for a lot of people, whether or not they’re religious comes down to this very concept. Can we accept that a god who’s all-knowing and all-powerful is okay with this, or not? It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but that’s about where the argument ends. Either you believe it or you don’t. I like the way you explained your beliefs. Thanks for chiming in, Regina.

  • Pegab

    A friend just introduced me to this beautiful poem that I think fits into this discussion:

    Kindness – Naomi Shihab Nye

    you know what kindness really is
    you must lose things,
    feel the future dissolve in a moment

    Like salt in a weakened broth.
    What you held in your hand,
    what you counted and carefully saved,
    all this must go so you know
    how desolate the landscape can be
    between the regions of kindness.
    How you ride and ride
    thinking the bus will never stop,
    the passengers eating maize and chicken
    will stare out the window forever.

    Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
    you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
    lies dead by the side of the road.
    You must see how this could be you,
    how he too was someone
    who journeyed through the night with plans
    and the simple breath that kept him alive.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
    purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    it is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you every where
    like a shadow or a friend.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
    purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    it is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you every where
    like a shadow or a friend.