“Everything Happens for a Reason”

floating featherWe’ve all heard people say it. We might have thought it ourselves. But what do we really mean when we believe that “everything happens for a reason”? Is it a harmless form of wishful thinking that provides comfort and reassurance when times are tough? Or, is there something potentially problematic in endorsing this sentiment?

When we say “everything happens for a reason,” we often do so when trying to make sense of personal hardship and suffering. Yet when we use the phrase, we usually don’t claim to know the reason. Whatever the cause, it was not the result of our own deliberate intention; nor are we appealing to the reasons of another. For example, when someone reflectively thinks “everything happens for a reason” after being robbed, they are referring to something other than the reasons that motivated the burglar to act. Again, the ‘reasons’ we refer to are neither ours nor anyone else’s.

Sometimes the phrase is used as a preface to our finding a reason in what happens. Such is the case when we say to ourselves: “being robbed will teach me to live without – to be more frugal.” We find some positive value in the outcome and predicate this as the reason for things turning out as they did. Yet it is not so much the reason, but a reason that we give here – one invented after the fact to soften the blow of an objectionable outcome. Though we didn’t initially wish for things to come about as they did, our post-hoc reasoning would seem to suggest that we might have, which makes whatever issue we are dealing with seem less bad. This way of using the phrase is closely associated with Nietzsche’s proverb: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Such that when we say “everything happens for a reason,” we might only be counting the ways in which unfortunate life events really do make us stronger (or more intelligent, wise, humble, etc.).

Others use the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” not as an after-the-fact justification better suited to their own personal desires and preferences, but as an appeal to some cosmic power or explanatory force outside of themselves. When these individuals believe “everything happens for a reason,” they are suggesting that the cosmos is somehow looking out for them, ensuring that it will all work out favorably in the end. Some would call it harmless, or even suggest that it is it is beneficial if it helps the individual cope with some difficult aspect of living. But there are potential problems with this way of thinking.

For instance, an individual may engage in a kind of laissez-faire passivity, regarding themselves as a proverbial feather in the wind; they wait for fate to direct them, to choose the paths to be taken, outcomes to be realized, and so on. In short, they sit and wait for things to happen. It involves a kind of blind or naive hope that things will work out in one’s favor if we give it enough time.

Hope is a good thing in small to moderate doses, but there is such a thing as having too much. A person with an irrational and unqualified hope for the future may squander the time that they have, fail to take responsibility for their decisions, or recognize the role they ultimately play in bringing about divergent outcomes.

An irrational hope against all sensible odds can also serve as a dream-like distraction, preventing us from dealing with the reality that faces us. Suppose someone believes they are going to be the next Sidney Crosby – an NHL superstar worth millions of dollars. If this person truly believes that to be the case, despite not being picked up by hockey scouts and finding themselves years past their prime, their hope is arguably irrational. They may hold onto this dream while sacrificing relationships, alternate career opportunities, and so on. Having invested so much, they might feel anger toward the cosmos for letting them down. They may feel despair and become swallowed by depression. At a certain point, the wrong kind of hope becomes a psychological anchor.

There is nothing wrong with thinking “everything happens for a reason,” if it is a harmless shoulder shrug that helps us cope. But let’s not forget that the reasons we refer to are most often our own: those that direct our choices and actions, or that we appropriate after-the-fact, in a way that we can better come to terms with a less than desirable outcome. There are always constraints on what is possible, but the cosmos on its own takes no sides. For better or worse, we are the ones to predicate our experiences and appropriate sufficient reasons for living … such that we can imagine our future possibilities and realistically turn them into actualities.

Brad Peters

Brad is a Halifax Psychologist at Cornerstone Psychological Services. He is also a part-time psychology professor at Saint Mary's University; academic interests include human personality, theoretical psychology, and philosophy of mind.

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