D Gregory Smith

"Everything Happens For A Reason"

Filed By D Gregory Smith | March 11, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: HIV coping skills, life coping skills, reality, sheep and theology, WTF

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.


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“I can't control my destiny, I trust my soul, my only goal is just to be. There's only now, there's only here. Give in to love or live in fear. No other path, no other way. No day but today.”

- Jonathan Larsen (Creator of RENT)

Exactly! I knew I saw Rent 14 times for a reason...(pun intended)

It's nice to believe that we are protected by a greater force from the sky. Worse case scenario. What if a huge asteroid was heading towards us, the same size of the one 65 million years ago that hit the Gulf of Mexico and wiped out 97% of life around the world ? The only species that survived were warm blooded mammals that lived underground and some sea life. What would we say to each other waiting for the meteorite to hit earth? Everything happens for the best? The planet Earth is insignificant in the vast creation/destruction scheme of a random Universe and so are we. Inventing a sky god in our image for protection is senseless projection of human ego. The Universe is more powerful than that and still a mystery in spite of religions thinking they have an answer.

Simply out of curiosity, Charles, what would you say about people having a sense of purpose?
Where does that come from?

I don't know, but I think a sense of purpose comes naturally in the creation process. As the millions of sperm swim towards the egg, only one will reach and fertilize. but every sperm tries. It's in our survival genetic memory and we all have the purpose for survival and to live. I feel we are destined in some way to be here and do our work but I don't know how to define it. I don't believe in the soul as I think that is a religious invention but I do believe in cellular memory in the DNA. I think if you are intuitive and go with the flow you are on the right path. It's not about being guided, it's about one paying attention to the authenticity of being.

I can appreciate that- thanks for taking the time to answer.

I'm with you on this one. It's not a bad thing to make the best of a situation, and to explore the possibilities that might be offered during adversity. But there's a way that kind of thinking can turn, dangerously, into a theory about some kind of pre-ordained destiny. And it's especially dangerous when we apply it to calamities and diseases. And provides fodder for the Pat Robertsons of the world.

Combine that with the popularity of texts like The Secret and...[shudders].

And I should add - that comment was addressed to you, Greg.

Thanks, Yasmin. I always like to hear your perspective- helps round out my own thoughts....

Wow, shades of today... a female student of mine who is a a sweet but tough young lady sat at the piano and was upset and started to cry. She and another student of mine had been dating and had broken up and she was very upset. She was trying to figure out what she had done wrong and her problem was that she couldn't figure it out since there was nothing that she had done or that he had done. But she needed for there to be a complex reason for the pain that she felt. She finally looked at me and said "things like this don't just happen" and I told her that they do. Sometimes things just happen and there is no reason and that her friends are BSing her with the best of intentions because they want her to stop hurting. She is very intellectual and just wants to figure it out and find the reason so that she will understand it. This was well timed, I just sat down at the end Of my day and here it is.

Yeah, I don't believe that everything happens for a reason either. However, I also think it's one of those lines that people use when they don't have any original words of comfort, but still want to say something nice.

Not to say that there aren't people who genuinely believe that statement (my mother), but it's not always out of belief in something higher. Sometimes it's kindness.

It's like when my girlfriend says "everything will be okay" and I tell her that I don't like vague reassurances. That line is kind of a last resort for her if I'm upset about something beyond either of our control.

Juston Thouron Juston Thouron | March 11, 2010 11:31 PM

Greg, I think about the unconscious mind whenever this subject comes up. There have been so many published studies about unconscious patterns in how we process our experiences and relate to people and the world that, in my mind, the idea of determinism escapes from a philosophical/religious paradigm only to reappear in the psychological. And that makes me uncomfortable.

When you wrote, "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." All I could think of was that I could not have said it better than you did. But I can't help but wonder about the unconscious mind in myself and others.

I wonder about it myself.
I wonder whether our search for meaning HAS to have an object at the end- can it just be in the search? And I think you're wondering whether we're hard-wired to find meaning in this way, and if so, that's disturbing.
Well, I don't know if we're hard-wired, but we're definitely trained. Some non-Christian religious traditions wouldn't be so quick to say there's a reason for everything.
Excellent question, though.

People love to find patterns when none are there. It's part of what makes us human - we attempt to make order out of disorder so then we can better control a situation. It's the sort of mental process that led to us being able to use fire - no, it's not a random destructive force, but a chemical process that operates according to certain principles. Which is true and helps us overcome that fear.

The down side is that we start to look for the big Reasons with capital-R's. Why does fire act according to certain principles? Is there someone behind it controlling it? Is there a story about how it was given to humans? Was it given for a reason?

Not everything happens for a reason, although it's easier to think that than to accept that life is filled with random cruelty and random joy. As Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the universe." And of course he doesn't - he uses a dreidel instead.

Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe not. But I think there is meaning in everything that happens to us. The distinction is subtle-- like how God doesn't make bad things happen but he can and does work through them.

"Everything for a reason" had never worked for me, but my partner's suicide almost a decade ago sealed it for me. Some things happen for which there is no good reason; there is no redeeming hidden value waiting to be revealed.

In fact, it can spur self-shame. In the midst of tough times, it becomes an extra burden that people believe a positive reason exists which they're not insightful enough to find.

I'm an obnoxiously optimistic guy. It's just built-in for me to believe that it's possible to make good in the midst of awful. Optimism makes more sense to me knowing that sometimes truly bad things happen, period.

Thanks, Greg...

Seems strange to say "you're welcome"- all I did was say something you apparently already think....

I too am an optimist. As I said above, I see kindness and generosity because I work to see them. It's rarely disappointed.