“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.”