There is nobody I envy more than those who are comfortable claiming that, “Everything happens for a reason.”
I understand the perception, I do. I think that as humans, we are naturally inclined to make sense of our past in order to bring ourselves peace in the present. And it’s a comforting worldview. We look at where we’ve been and then we look at where we are and we reason “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten here without first having been there.” And if we’re happy, that seems like justification enough. After all, happiness is the end goal right? It doesn’t matter what happens or who gets hurt along the way. It all happened for a reason. And that’s justification enough.
I don’t mean to sound tongue-in-cheek. I admire those who can extract the best from the worst. I admire those who have found a way to live in peace with their pasts. But I don’t think that we always use “Everything happened for a reason” for purely noble purposes. At best, we bring ourselves peace. But at worst, we evade responsibility for what we’ve done wrong.
My issue with believing that everything happens for a reason is that too often, it robs us of the ability to think concisely and critically about the consequences of our own actions. It allows us to live out lives with a sense of reckless indifference; deciding that our fate is out of our hands so we may as well act on our impulses and seek comfort in knowing that later, any choice we’ve made will turn out to have happened for a reason.
To say that, “Everything happens for a reason” is often to take on an undeniably self-centered view of the Universe. The ‘reason’ we come to usually relates only to ourselves. It is the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card for whatever we did to reach that point. It is the way we justify not just the failure to own up to what we’ve done, but the failure to examine what we could have done differently. The better choices we could have made for ourselves. The superior path we could have followed. When we use the adage ‘Everything happens for a reason’ as a way to duck out of analysis, we are toeing a slippery slope.
And that slope doesn’t only apply to what we’ve consciously chosen. I have a similarly difficult time attributing external events to any cosmic, universal ‘reason.’ Or at least, not to a reason that I understand. The losses we suffer, the pain we endure, the people who leave us long before their time, may never fit into any sort of larger, cosmic scheme that makes sense to us. And it’s okay if they don’t. Some things are allowed to happen for no good reason at all, and it’s not always our job to assign them one. Some things we can simply let be.
The clichés we recite to each other imply that we ought to keep the pain alive and fresh until we can classify it – put it in a box labeled “Assigned a reason” and file it away on the shelf of Meaningful Experiences. It’s a strange pressure to feel happy about everything that happened in our pasts – to be indiscriminately grateful for even the experiences that broke us. And I can admire that reasoning. I can appreciate the sense of well being it may evoke in those who are capable of believing it. But it’s never something that I’ve able to embrace.
If the shelves of my life were labeled, they would perhaps look something like this:
“Things that happened because we were stupid and young.”
“Things that happened because the Universe is purely unfair.”
“Things that actually did make me into a braver, stronger, more compassionate human being.”
“Things that I will never be able to figure out, and that’s okay.”
The third shelf would be heavier and fuller than the others – and for that, I am lucky. But the other shelves would nonetheless exist. The last shelf – the one we all try to avoid – would be there, just as starkly and unapologetically as the others. It would be boxes of broken glass and misshapen puzzle pieces. Things that I could never find a place for. Things that I could not re-construct to find the beauty in.
And in some ways, that shelf would be cathartic. Believing in a reason for everything necessitates a justification for every past action – both our own and those of others – and I’m not sure if that’s something I’m okay with. I don’t want to believe in a Universe where cruel, senseless actions are required for the good of some all-purposeful ‘reason.’ Especially not any reason as petty as the ones we tend to assign. Could I ever truly attribute the untimely death of a loved one to ‘making me who I am today’? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that I can slip that notion onto the bleak last shelf and simply let it be. Some things we don’t get to understand.
There are puzzle pieces we may never be able to find a place for. And that’s okay. I think we are so uncomfortable with living in mystery that we try to attribute the actions of an entire, sometimes senseless Universe to ourselves and it’s not always the healthiest attitude to take. We aren’t meant to profit from some of the world’s tragedies. We aren’t always meant to suffer from others. There are some catastrophes you don’t deserve to have endured, no matter how many people tell you that it happened for a reason. We’re allowed to put some things in the “Things I will never understand” box and simply close the lid. Simply tuck it away. Simply let ourselves go on with life, never understanding why or how some horrendously random acts take place.
The best we can do with the things we can’t make sense of is simply let them be. Simply carry on filling up our other shelves – the shelves packed with things that we do understand, that we do benefit from, that we grow and change and better ourselves as a result of. That’s the corner of the Universe that we do have control over. That’s the meaning we get to cultivate. And the more we fill those shelves up, the less we need to place on that tiny, forth shelf after all.