Everything Happens for a Reason
If I had a penny for every time something bad has happened to me and someone has tried to comfort me with the words, “everything happens for a reason”, I’d be rich.
There seems to be an unspoken understanding in society, a consensus that the expected response to this luke-warm platitude is to nod sincerely, as if considering something deep and philosophical, smile and say, “thanks, you’re absolutely right”. Personally, when I’ve just had my third failed job interview in a row, a flat tyre or woken up to find I’ve bitten and broken my own tooth in my sleep, I’m not one to consider good form in my response to such phrases.
“What do you mean?”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Yes, I heard you fine, but what do you mean?”
“Er, you know, just that everything, er, happens for a reason.”
“Yes, but what do you actually mean? Go into detail.”
I can sense genuine discomfort and confusion now. I’m not following the script. By now they should be feeling good for offering such profound comfort to a friend in need, they should be basking in the glory of my smiling, nodding acknowledgement of their well timed philosophical contribution.
Given the nature and theme of this blog, please don’t think I intend to attack or criticise people who use this phrase. On the contrary, the words have ‘liberal’ stamped all over them. They are always uttered with the best of intentions, and I always greatly appreciate the sentiments of anyone who takes the time and trouble to offer me support, whether I am in need of it or not.
However, the “everything happens for a reason” phrase is a perfect example of something that people accept and distribute without even really understanding it, let alone challenging it. When you really push someone to follow the logic and see where it takes them, they usually end up at one of three theories.
One, is that God moves in mysterious ways or has plans for us all that we don’t always understand.
Two, is some sort of Karma or fate, where good and bad always balance out in the end.
Three, is that nothing completely bad ever happens, there is always something good to take from it.
As it is nearly always liberals who use the phrase (true believers will always have something far more specific to their own belief system to offer), if you really press them you’ll find that they don’t really believe in either of the first two theories. They are both refuted with equal ease by the same indisputable fact – good things happen to good and bad people, just as bad things happen to good and bad people. There is no pattern, no consistency, and there is no evidence that anything equals out over time. Although we tend to notice groupings of good or bad things that happen to us (the three examples of bad things I gave at the beginning all happened to me in the space of two months, early last year), over the courses of our lives the patterns of fortune and misfortune that befall us are about as random as you can possibly get. If there is time to pursue a full rational discussion, I seldom meet much resistance in getting any reasonably liberal person to agree with this.
The third theory is slightly different in that it doesn’t really include a supernatural element, it is far more about interpretation. It is important to be clear about exactly what is being claimed here. I have never met anyone who believed that every event that happens is good overall, just that no matter how bad things are overall, there is always at least one positive element that can be taken from the situation, however small or insignificant it is in context with the larger picture.
It reminds me of a caption someone at my work has on a notice board over her desk: “Nobody is completely useless – if nothing else, you can always serve as a bad example.”
The truth of this third theory is down to the individual. I think if you want to find something good in a bad situation, you will do. The question is, is it really comforting to relate it to the bad event? For example, because my mother died when I was thirteen I undoubtedly have a closer relationship with my father than I would have done had my mother been alive. But I see no need to connect the two, I prefer to simply recognise the tragedy of my mother’s early demise for what it is and treasure the relationship I have with my father in its own right. To try and connect the two simply does a disservice to both.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans I got a Church Newsletter through my letterbox. In his address, the local vicar lamented the tragedy but encouraged his readers to take great comfort from the fact that many people had “converted to Christianity in the aftermath”. Whether these people converting was a good thing or not is irrelevant here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was. Does this really make anyone feel any better at all about Hurricane Katrina and the horrific cost of human life it claimed?
In this context, “everything happens for a reason” amounts to nothing more than “every cloud has a sliver lining”. There is nothing wrong with hope and optimism, I revel in both, but trying to make sense of tragedy with weak compromises like this simply cheapens the efforts to repair the damage and recover. Rather than looking for a needle of hope in a haystack of despair, let us face the bad things that happen to us as they are, and feel the stronger for it once we have overcome them. Instead of trying to look for reasons why something bad might not be so bad after all, why not accept that bad things happen, do everything in our power to repair the damage, and then enjoy the truly good things in our lives in all their undiluted glory.