Why do bad things happen to good people?
It was a beautiful, quiet evening in Italy that night. The quietness was what made it so beautiful. Thousands of houses were scattered amongst the countryside but, strangely, no household had its lights on—not even a single lit candle. The entire city was enveloped in a dark blanket of warmth and comfort. Peace. Each and every family, of each and every household, was content. This was a strange and rare happening in such a place. The typical attitude of the large Italian town was “go loud, or go home.” It would be expected on a late night to have music blaring, horns honking, people yelling and dancing. But, on this night, there was no such thing. Only a quietness that would lull even the most rambunctious of babies to a deep slumber. The entire night was at peace. The entire night was at rest.
But this was not to last.
There had been but an hour of peace before a flicker of light broke the darkness. A candle. Baldovino walked through the small quarters of his house, and set the candle on the windowsill. He took a seat on a bench that he had placed at the foot of the window, and he stared up at the stars. With a single movement, he put out the candle and set it on the table beside him. It occurred to him that any sort of light pollution could affect his view of the night sky, which shone brightly. Baldovino had never seen a night like this. He had never seen the stars twinkle as they did that night. He had never seen the moon in such a clear, full view, its white face reflecting down the most glorious of lights. He viewed the mountains with a look of awe in his eyes, as he saw what almost looked to be a milky silhouette encompass them in a soft glow. Baldovino shook his head in amazement and sighed a thankful prayer.
But the moment of awe vanished when a whiff of smoke snarled up Vino’s nose. It was rank, disgusting, repulsive, and Vino began to feel a deep twist in his gut as the scent increased in intensity. Baldovino stood and walked away from the window, a hand over his face. Something was burning. The peace that had reigned over Italy was already beginning to quiver.
Baldovino walked as fast as his old, weary legs would carry him to the door. He threw it open and started into the night air. He was met with smoke. He coughed and gagged as the black fog enveloped his old, thin body, but he knew it would be unwise to turn and retreat into his home. He pushed himself through the fog until finally coming into a clear in the middle of the road. Vino took a moment to stop and breathe. His lungs were rigid and tense, and he could feel his heart beating anxiously within his chest.
“Vino!” someone cried.
Baldovino turned in the direction of the voice to see a small, familiar girl running up the road towards him. He called to her, “Stop right there! Don’t come any closer, bambina!”
“But, Vino, your shop! Your candy shop! It’s on fire!”
The words cut him deeply, but he did not turn to look. He only put forth his hand and ordered the small girl once more to stay where she was. “Do not come near here! It is dangerous, bambina! Go to your mamma and papa!”
She, still, did not obey.
Baldovino glanced behind him, but turned back quickly when he saw a fiery red spear break through the roof boards of the shop. His shop. His entire life’s work was in flames, and there was nothing the old man could do but stumble and stagger away from it like a coward.
The girl cried out to him again. “Vino!” she said. “The fire! It’s beginning to spread!”
“I will tell you one last time, bambina! Turn back and leave now!”
This time, the girl obeyed. She took one last, long look of fear at the flaming building before spinning on her heel and dashing in the other direction. Baldovino looked after her anxiously, wishing that he himself could merely run from this situation. But he knew in his heart that this small fire, this small tragedy, was only the beginning of a much bigger happening. Especially if the fire department didn’t arrive soon.
Vino’s phone was in the back of his house, in his bedroom, but he was wise enough to know not to charge willingly into a building that was being smoked out by the one across from it. So he turned and moved as fast as he could manage to the neighbor’s house. He scurried up the steps and pounded on the wooden door forcefully, calling, “Help! Fire!!”
Soon, the entire town was awake, and in turmoil.
Even on the outskirts of town, word had reached them, and neighbor was saying to neighbor, “Did you hear? Baldovino’s candy shop has caught fire in town!”
Crowds of people were rushing in to see what they could do to help. Some even carried buckets of water for miles, hoping to reach the shop before it was too late. But, by the time the neighborhood had become aware of this catastrophe, the shop was the least of their problems. The buildings surrounding Baldovino’s shop had also caught fire, and even the buildings surrounding the buildings surrounding the shop had caught fire. The fire raged from building to building with a heat that rivaled the sun’s.
And throughout all of this, all Baldovino could do was stand and watch, tears welling in his eyes. All he could ever ask himself was, “Why? What had caused this?” The questions were plentiful, but the answers were few.
The fire department had arrived before anyone else, and they were still too late. The fire had already begun to spread violently fast. They knew they would have to work efficiently and strategically if they were to quench this hungry flame. But they were all too busy to notice that small girl, that small girl named Rosabella, run into Baldovino’s smokey house. Even Baldovino hadn’t noticed, as he was too busy wallowing in self-pity.
Soon, Rosabella’s parents were out looking for her frantically, and Baldovino told them that he hadn’t seen her since the beginning of the fire. This worried them even more and they began to run and cry through the streets, “Where is Rosabella?! Where is my precious bambina??!” But no one knew.
However, a few minutes later, Vino’s house caught fire. How, nobody really knows. But the flame was bigger than all of the rest, and its heat was uncomparable. Even the veteran firefighters of the department only stayed back and watched as the fire began to consume Vino’s home. But they did not know what was inside of that building—who was inside of that building.
Many painful minutes passed for Baldovino before he saw Rosabella’s weary, dirt-covered face emerge from the smoke. He saw within her hands a small black box. His black box. His music box. Baldovino felt a sting of pain in his heart. When he had turned 65, Rosabella had bought and given him that music box as a thank you for the generous gifts he bestowed upon her from time to time. She had the widest smile on her face, looking as though she had just rescued a kitten from a tree.
But the short, happy moment was crushed when Vino’s building collapsed, and the small, warm-hearted girl known as Rosabella was killed.
It took twenty-three hours to completely quench the flame, as it only continued to spread throughout the night. The cause of this fire was the question among many of the civilians, as many of them blamed the local gangs, cigarettes, and even global warming. But the answer was gravely simple. After specialists had analyzed the scene, they came to the conclusion that there had merely been a malfunction with a light switch. This fire, this fire now deemed “The Great Flame” all started from a spark. No one was to blame. There was no evil to be brought to justice, no lesson to learn, nothing to gain from any of this. It was all a tragedy, and nothing more.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” an American gentleman asked another one morning. Both men were seated comfortably outside a coffee shop in Los Angeles, clothed in black suits and ties.
The other gentleman looked at the man who had proposed the question and frowned. “What are you saying?”
The first man shrugged and took a sip of his coffee. “I just read this morning about that fire that happened in Italy . . . and it just makes you think, you know? What more noble a cause than selling candy to children? That Baldavito character really was a good guy. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The second gentleman said nothing for a moment. His eyes watched the busy streets of Los Angeles, his ears listened to the honking and yelling . . . finally, he replied. He looked at the man that sat across from him and said, “Richard Nixon had a saying: ‘The finest steel has to first pass through the hottest fire.’”
The first man looked at him strangely.
“Fire hurts,” the second man said thoughtfully. “So does pain. But, like fire, pain liquefies us—turns us into jello. What makes us who we are is not what we do in the moments before or after pain, it is what we do in the moments of pain. That determines how we will mold, that determines how we will be able to withstand the coming fire.”