“Everything Happens For A Reason” And Other Lies

Do you have a go-to phrase that you hold close when things are not going well?  I certainly do and they are most certainly a shelter from the storm.  But, a shelter is just that: something temporary, rudimentary and truly useful for a short period of time.  “Crutch” might be a more apt term, but they essentially mean the same.  We cling to these apparent truisms like shipwrecked mariners and hope that they will keep us afloat.  After we reach dry land, however, we often realize just how limited these tools are to people who are not desperate.

Many of these mottos have become quite popular.  One that has gained particular traction is the idea that “everything happens for a reason”.  The amount of times that I have either read this attached to someone’s social media profile or heard uttered from someone who has been presented with bad news is fairly astronomical.  It has also become a guiding principle of the religion of fatalism.  What is also telling (in my experience) is how many people volunteer this view in relatively unrelated or irrelevant situations.  They will simply state this like they would state the other, perhaps in an attempt to calm some inner anxiety.

On its face, the idea does not seem particularly dreadful.  In fact, it seems obvious to the point of being a platitude: cause = effect.  Event X happened due to Events Y, Z, etc.  Chimps and human toddlers are able to recognize this, so unless every person who sincerely uses this phrase is either a toddler or a chimp (which, while a tempting thing to believe, is probably untrue), there must be more to it.  The idea can be more honestly stated like so: “everything happens for a reason that ultimately works for the betterment of everyone/for good”.  When adherents state that everything happens for a reason, what they mean to say is that everything that happens will end up in something good or valuable for the person to whom it happens.  

The most fundamental objection to this view of the world is that it’s simply not supportable by actual happenings.  The world and universe are full of things happening all of the time to everyone and everything.  Some are good (or we perceive them as such), some are bad (which is also up to our subjective perception) and the vast, vast majority are neutral or go on unrecognized by us.  But, let’s limit our discussion to the things which we can see and judge. Has everything that has ever happened to anyone occurred for a reason that fulfills some cosmic, benevolent order?  Granted, I cannot comment on a plane of existence beyond this earthly one where scorecards are kept by beings apparently bored enough to watch us constantly.  Keeping to the earthly realm, this does not seem to be the case.  Terrible, awful injustices happen to people every day : injustices that they will suffer a net negative from for the rest of their lives and that don’t appear to ever add up to something that benefited them. Similarly, terrific windfalls are bestowed on people who scarcely need them and (at least sometimes) have acted awfully to perpetrate them.  The point is NOT that everything happens for a reason that is bad or leads somewhere bad (saying so would be as dogmatic as the reverse).  The point is that scarcely any of these happenings are ordered and that they certainly are not guided by some plan that will see the worthy rewarded and the unjust punished.  

Once we deal with the metaphysical problems, we can look at the value of this idea.  As I alluded to earlier, this idea and ones like it are often of a tremendous benefit to people who are going through terrible trials.  I think that it is human nature to be irrational and erratic during periods of extreme anguish, it’s part of how we survive and how we make use of defence mechanisms.  Once we have (hopefully) progressed to a better, less harried place, it’s important to scrutinize the crutches (or shelters) that we held so dear.  Believing that everything happens for a reason (or fatalism, in general) seems to involve a troubling disregard for choice and agency.  I suppose it’s not fair to say that all of fatalism disregards choice, but how can such a concept be properly emphasized by a philosophy that leaves most everything up to uncontrollable, unseeable actors?  

It might be tempting to view a rejection of fatalism as a depressing reality.  After all, who wouldn’t want to put their complete trust irrevocably in the hands of a force that will work out for good?  Firstly, the attractiveness of an idea has no bearing on its veracity (otherwise, I’d still be putting teeth under my pillow…after grave robbing them).  Secondly, I feel that a rejection of fatalism is empowering and hopeful: it puts control of one’s life more firmly in one’s own hands and it removes the worry of superstition and fable.  Put differently, rejecting fatalism and rejecting the idea that everything happens for a (good) reason opens up just as many possibilities as it closes.  

Isn’t the idea that everything happens for a reason and that something out there works all things for good a little insulting to people who have experienced senseless tragedy?  It’s a cruel irony, then, that many people who HAVE suffered tragedy from which no benefits arose are among the most dogmatic adherents to this concept.  Tragedy and anguish all too often turn people to this belief and it robs them of the deep, visceral meaning of what they have been through.  Think about it for a moment: going through something truly awful is at least a bit less meaningful if there is a caveat that it will ultimately lead to somewhere or something good. When there is no such guarantee, the opportunity for learning and growing and coming to terms with the harsh realities of the world is a lot more possible.  I can only speak for myself, but were I guaranteed that Awful Event X would eventually work out to my benefit, I would have much less incentive to learn and mature from it.  Instead, I would simply wait for this change of tides to occur and go on repeating my mindless platitude.  I think that this trend is real and a genuine danger for people going through rough times.

The world and universe and human behaviour are random: what we can control are limited portions of our environment through the choices that we make.  Choice is discarded when we decide, in an attempt to ease our own pain, to give up learning in exchange for an ideal condition that does not exist.  I will never begrudge someone who uses a flawed idea to recover from a horrible ordeal.  I will, however, realize that their pain does not make the flawed idea any less flawed.  

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