Lately it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic - from the surge of school shootings to the shaky economy - by asking, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilization. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: "Bad things" occur and "good people" never cause them. "Badness," it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control - more often than not, in somebody else.
The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a "bad thing" produce a "good" result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone "evil" so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?
Once, on a bus, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near "all these bad people." The little girl scrutinized the face of each passenger preparing to exit the bus. Puzzled, she tapped her mother lightly on the sleeve. "Mommy," she said timidly. "How can you tell which are the bad ones?"
These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when my family discovered, much to our chagrin, that someone had taken our recycling bin. Each of the sides of the rectangular bin had been marked with our address in permanent ink - a precaution taken after the last one had vanished.
And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbor who swiped our container had returned it to the alley, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup. Apparently the vandal not only recycles, he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!
What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the plight of the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another's motivations?
The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgment? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody's specs need adjusting?
In the ancient wisdom monologue ludlul bel nemeqi ("Let me praise the expert"), a pious man concludes that we can never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us.
But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with creativity.
During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, eggplant and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve to his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailers. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity.
In the words of Langston Hughes, he was free within himself.
In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of our bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions - from grumbling about un-neighborliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed - another idea emerged. What about ... phoning the city to request another container? And having it ready - adorned with a bow - to present to the "stealth recycler?"
The phone call took less than 10 minutes - a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had our irritation gone unchecked. Now the scenario has shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as our equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, we might even laugh about it together.
Maybe life is one big salvage operation. Recycling love - the ultimate haul.
L. H. Akgulian is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor