The topic under consideration for today is: Do you think that everything happens for a reason?
This is one of the most foundational questions of existence, isn’t it? Your theology, your cosmology, your worldview, attitudes, and personal history all come to “where the rubber hits the road.”
During my own lifetime, I’ve been all over the map on this one. I think that’s what makes you know that you are considering an important question. I don’t think that the really important questions can be answered, once and for all, and then packed away in a neat little box and sent off to some mental or spiritual storage unit somewhere in your psyche. Or, rather — if you answer them once and for all, they get packed away in a mental or spiritual storage unit in your psyche — and you can’t find it when you need it. The really interesting questions are meant to hang, to linger in the atmosphere, to shine like the North Star and provide a point from which to navigate your life — to calibrate your present location, and chart your course from there.
So, I don’t know “the answer” to this question. And, I can share some experiences. Whenever I have been sitting in the midst of personal tragedy or unexpected setback, and a well-meaning person has said, from the bottom of their heart, and with great conviction: “Everything happens for a reason;” I found no comfort in those words, in the moment. I appreciated that my friend wanted to make me feel better, and I felt even worse that somehow I didn’t feel whole-hearted acceptance of what they were offering me. “Wow, thanks! THAT makes it all better now!” I also remember times of visiting a friend who was dealing with adversity, not knowing what to say, and the old faithful platitude came tumbling out of my mouth: “Everything happens for a reason.” From where I sit now, it seems a bit arrogant, in retrospect, to have said that. How the hell do we know?
Whatever perspective you have on this question, I respect it. As human beings, we are “meaning-makers.” Viktor Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” from his experience under horrific conditions in a Nazi concentration camp. Our brains and nervous systems are built to organize, categorize, “tag,” if you will, our experiences, so that we can learn from them. Philosophers along all points of the belief spectrum have concluded that humans seem “hard-wired” to search for meaning. We can endure anything if it means something. Life can seem too harsh, too random, without having it mean something in the end.
My personal belief(s) is/(are): I do not believe that everything is pre-destined; that we are all just puppets enacting a Master Script that all turns out well in the end — except, of course, if you weren’t pre-destined to have things turn out well, ’cause then you are pretty much screwed. I believe in Free Will, that we are but one hand in the larger Game; that we are co-creators of our destinies, and that the actions of one person have the power to change things for the better. I don’t believe in a god that is just a later version of Roman cartoon deities — an elderly gentleman sitting on a throne in Heaven instead of on Olympus, throwing thunderbolts and capriciously granting favors or damnation as whim suits on that particular eternal day. I know that I don’t believe in Nothing, I believe in Something — call it the Universe, or Life, or Love — it doesn’t bother me, what you call it. It’s more likely that it will bother you, what I call it.
I believe that we make our own reasons, we make our own meaning, for the events that befall us. I was relieved that at the memorial service for the people who died in the recent violence in Arizona, that President Obama did not sanctimoniously pronounce, “Everything happens for a reason.” What reason could there possibly be for innocents to be arbitrarily slaughtered? The distinction is this: in the midst of terrible tragedy and hardship, you can make up your own mind how you will respond. You assign the meaning. You can shoose your path, and your actions, in response or reaction to what has occurred. This happened: what does it mean for you? How will you move forward? We can learn from tragedy and setbacks. We can be inspired to make life better for others, based on what we have learned. That, in no way, implies that some pre-determined “reason” caused a senseless and harmful act to occur.
Every event in my life, even the most painful times, set the stage for the events that were to subsequently unfold. After any of those events, I could have decided to do ANYTHING. After my Dad died when I was in high school, I could have chosen to drop out of school, or smoke a lot of dope, or shoplift, or get pregnant — but I didn’t. As my marriage was falling apart, I could have chosen to make my husband’s life a living hell — but I didn’t. As I was getting royally screwed over and unfairly treated in a contract renewal process, I could have sued — but I didn’t. I think people act according to what they know how to do. Luckily for me, I had a lot of experience flying by the seat of my pants. Taking too hard a position in any of these circumstances would have resulted in further hardship, and in a vastly different trajectory of several lives, not just my own. People have a hard time dealing with the notion of choice, of personal responsibility. I believe that we always have a choice. Even when we don’t experience having a choice, or when we can’t see alternatives, we still have a choice.
I’ve learned that when I sit with a friend who is grieving, or who has just received an upsetting diagnosis, or who otherwise has had the wind taken out of their sails — the best thing for me to do is just to shut up and listen. Just be. Be present. Be loving. They don’t need my platitudes.
For myself, at this time in my life, I actually find it comforting to acknowledge that we live in a very strange and mysterious Universe. It is beautiful, and abundant, and good — and it is wild. Sometimes, random shit happens. It’s amazing, actually, that there is any good at all. Adversity will happen, and we can support each other through whatever comes. We can respect each other, and our individual beliefs, to find our own meaning.