A reason?…

storm at sea

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Some of the most caring people i know have said this to comfort me in the midst of tragic circumstances. I have received it with warm gratitude for their empathy. Yet inwardly, i admit, i have also grimaced and rolled my eyes.

Many people must find comfort in the sentiment, since it is so commonly expressed. Perhaps the conviction behind it is, “If some meaning can be found in this awful thing, that makes it a bit less awful, and a bit easier to hang on through it.”

But i have a hard time hearing it without the subtext that there is somehow intent behind the adversity. I don’t find that comforting. A story from my old believing days will get at what i mean.

The Genesis tale of Joseph illustrates a misfortune later seen to have led to a beneficial outcome. It was Joseph’s brothers who brought him calamity by selling him into slavery; they were responsible, not god.

When Joseph later holds their fates in his hands, having risen to leadership in a neighboring country – where his brothers come asking for aid in a time of famine – Joseph attributes his favorable position to divine providence. Addressing his brothers, he says, “You intended to harm me, but god intended it for good.”

That always seemed to me a crucial distinction — crediting humans for the bad and god for the good. It makes sense to apply it to a tragedy in the news such as the Las Vegas shootings. We were all heartened to see how people heroically assisted each other, even sacrificing for strangers. But no one would say it was good that the shooting happened so that folks could help each other. At least i hope not.

It’s a little harder to apply the principle to recent tragedies of nature — hurricanes, floods and wildfires — because no human intent is involved. Or what about when a loved one receives a terrible medical diagnosis? What if a god has nothing to do with it, and we chalk it up to the randomness of the universe?

Few people whose purpose is to comfort say, “God wanted this awful thing to happen.” But many i know say, “Everything happens for a reason” — which is still jarring to me, a little too close to saying indirectly that this very bad thing should have happened. (Yes, i react the same way to, “It was meant to be” — for the same reasons.)

It’s a significant improvement to say instead, “Something good can come out of this” — but dire circumstances call for sensitivity about timing. In the thick of it, better to simply come alongside and reflect that you can only imagine how difficult this must be. Being present is more important than saying the right thing.

When i look at the treasures that have come from challenging times in my life, i see that grief had to be allowed to work its way out. It becomes possible only in uncertain steps with unpredictable timing for the good to overtake the bad; in my experience, it has never come from having a reason. Along the way, we make micro-choices to revel in the sweet — such as the friends who warmed my heart with visits and meals when i was sick — without denying the bitter.

So when someone i know is facing tragedy, i won’t say to them, “Everything happens for a reason.” It isn’t honest of me. I do say, “I’m so sorry for you that this hurts so much.”

11 thoughts on “A reason?…

  1. There are 10 sorts of people: those who believe in religion, saying “everything happens for a reason”, and those who do not believe, saying “shit happens”.

    • I have 10 things to say about that:
      a. It’s not a binary choice.
      b. Some people who are not religious still say everything happens for a reason.
      Thank you for your comment, 2blue… 🙂

  2. For me it comes down to this: Our minds are infinitesimally small compared to the potential “knowledge” that “exists” in the universe. When we say someone “discovered” a new math formula or that the Vikings “discovered” the Americas at the turn of the 11th century, it’s not true; those things were there all along. It just took us all those years to figure out how to describe it or write about it or explain it to the world as a whole. In a similar way, when good or bad stuff happens, there’s no doubt there’s a reason for it happening. Reason, after all, dictates that there is a reason for everything. The problem is that we just don’t have the ability to wrap our minds around it at this stage of our long journey through evolution. So, in light of your previous response, Katherine, I suppose I am (b).

    • Thanks for your comments, Richard!
      Interesting perspective… By the way, there’s an enlightening chapter on discovery vs. invention in David Wootton’s 2015 book, “The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution.”

  3. As someone from the everything happens for a reason camp, your post has given me much to reflect upon, especially the passage where you mentioned the response “Something good can come out of this” as being preferable to “It was meant to be.” Katherine, thanks for your insight.


  4. Apposition over opposition it seems is always the better binary choice in such cases. Too often we choose the wrong words.The gift of ones presence speaks louder than words.

  5. Thanks for sharing your post link to my blog so I could come over to read it. You are so right and I love your last line – I’m so sorry for you that this hurts so much. It’s crucial to acknowledge hard times in a way that doesn’t diminish them as each person reacts in different ways to every situation. I love that line.
    Thanks for stopping by my blog to visit. I’m glad I was lead to visit yours!

    • Yes, important point — that people in difficult situations react in different ways. Those who hope to comfort and encourage must try to be aware of how something innocently said could unwittingly diminish the other person, or their experience. Thank you for your kind words, misifusa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s