I've heard it a lot - especially from people who are trying to find something comforting to say in the face of tragedy or bad news. I've heard it said to me at times when I was facing some of the biggest challenges of my life. I've heard it when I was feeling down about a breakup, a job loss, or some painful moment of friendship like perceived betrayal, hurtful comments or just bad feelings. I heard it a lot when I told people about my HIV diagnosis. I know when people say it, they are trying to be kind.
Here's my confession: I don't believe it.
First, it goes against all of the things I believe about free will and my own power in the world. Do I determine my own fate? Not totally, no. As much as I can, yes. I do this in my decisions, my attitudes and my approach to life. We all do. If we didn't, we wouldn't spend so much wasteful time in regret. "What if I would have said/done...?" "If I had only...."
Second, it says to me something about people's religious faith or spiritual understanding. When someone says the phrase, it shows they believe there's a deterministic force moving us all toward an intended goal. Like sheep. The irony of the consistently Gospel metaphor is not lost on me, but I don't like that image of God as Sheepdog. I am a person of faith, but not that kind.
Third, it really denies my creativity. When presented with a problem, should I just wait until the solution presents itself, fully formed at the end of my life? That seems like existential laziness. Should I look at a situation, try to wrap my brain around it and treat it like it the opportunity it is? That's what I try to do. I prefer to face reality squarely, sizing it up honestly and moving forward with integrity. When I can, or at least when I don't forget.
I want to be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn't have hopeful stances of faith or belief in the face of crisis. I am saying that the sort of Theistic Determinism exemplified by "Everything happens for a reason" doesn't make me feel better. It makes me feel like a pawn. Or a sheep. And, as someone who's spent a fair amount of time around sheep (I know, I know), I'm not that interested in being compared to one.
I believe that reality is reasonable, generous and kind. I have a lot of proof. I spend a lot of time looking for ways to see difficult situations in this light because I know it to be true in my life and in the world I see around me. I work at honing my vision. In meditation, in my work with others, in my dealing with friends and with myself. I want to see everything as it is- not with a deterministic hazy sort of vagueness of "a reason," but with an optimistic understanding of my own voice, vision and ability to interpret the world in a way consistent with my heart. And I want to see the possibilities. All of them. I don't want to look for a reason, I want to look for reality.
My worldview doesn't insist on a reason for everything happening- but with it, I can make sense out of almost anything.