Things don’t happen for a reason

January 16th, 2011 § 19 comments

November 8, 2010

One of the phrases I heard often during the emotional events of the past few years is “Things happen for a reason.” The other night while Clarke and I were watching a reality show one of the contestants spoke the same phrase as she predicted elimination from the show.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“No they don’t!” I reflexively argued with the screen.

“Why does that make you so upset?” Clarke asked.

“Because it’s just a way that this woman is rationalizing why this bad thing— elimination from a contest she’s competing in— is okay. She’s trying to tell herself that things really aren’t as bad as they are. She’s trying to console herself that there is a purpose in her suffering… that it will lead to something bigger and better, and that is just not necessarily the case.” I said.

I don’t think things happen for a reason and I find it unsettling when people want to tell me that cancer, or my mother-in-law’s death, or anything that has been a challenge has happened as part of some grand plan for something better.

I just don’t believe it. And I don’t want you to believe it about my life, either.

I think things just happen — and when they do, you have to decide how you are going to handle them. Those actions, those responses, can teach you lessons, but they are lessons you teach yourself. You can grow, get stronger, do something that you otherwise never would have. Alternatively, you might learn that you made a mistake and should deal with a situation differently the next time it comes up.

My attitude?

Don’t give away the credit.

Don’t minimize the hurt or disappointment.

Don’t rationalize why it isn’t as a big a deal as it is.

There isn’t necessarily a purpose in suffering; it’s not part of a causal narrative that “passing the test” will get you to the next step. You make your own tests, you find your own lessons. But using the word reason implies that it was given to you, designed for you.

And I just don’t believe that.

§ 19 Responses to Things don’t happen for a reason"

  • KimBaxter says:

    Thank you for re-posting. I really like this one.

  • Greg says:

    An all-time favorite. Thanks for being so honest and right. :o)

  • john says:

    The answer to everything about life is there is no reason. All the bull shit in the world does not give meaning for more more BS. Religion is the best way to turn BS into an industry that sells BS and it makes fools of sane people and make those who sell BS rich and make people fight and die to protect it.

  • Allie says:

    Thank you for writing this! Such a fantastic post, and I am so very with you on this.

  • Thank you! I love this. As a person with multiple chronic illnesses and who is part of an online bereavement group, I can’t tell you how often I hear this, and I end up yelling, like you do. You make excellent points.

    Although, a while back, I changed my response: Yes, everything happens for a reason. It’s not necessarily a good or desirable reason, but yes, of course there is always a precipitating factor fro everything.

    The reason I have Lyme disease is that an infected tick bit me. My wonderful service dog died too young from cancer; the reason is that he was exposed to some combination of carcinogens and/or had a genetic predisposition to cancer.

    The reason that contestant was being kicked off the game? The other contestants decided to get rid of her. That’s the reason.

    Somehow, taking this platitude and treating it like it’s a rational sentence takes the air right out of it, for me. I get a perverse sense of pleasure from that.

  • Connie says:


  • Mori says:

    I’d offer that the instinct to explain events as happening for a reason is, itself, not irrational. Not at the base, and not in all circumstances.

    In the dimension of being a survival trait, pattern matching, searching for causes and reasons, is vital at a primitive level. The primate that sees bushes shudder and never imagines it might be happening for a reason, has a lower chance of surviving than the primate that plays it safe and assumes something is lurking in the bushes ready to pounce.

    In another sense, the seed for “everything happens for a reason” may speak to a certain awareness that all events have the potential to be valuable. The lesson learned may be harsh, but strength and growth can come from nearly any event. Thus, “everything happens for a reason” is retrocausal. There is a subtle truth in the phrase.

    Having said that, the biggest problem the notion faces is that it doesn’t work very well for advanced creatures, like human beings, who have a capacity for constructing elaborate frameworks in their mind based on pure conjecture… if the human being also doesn’t keep “there’s a reason for everything” slotted into its proper place in the scheme of things.

    We have an insufficient degree of rationality in the world for most people to comprehend the difference between self-organizing structure and the hand of an overt intelligence, a specific plan laid out. In the battle for survival, all things do happen for a reason! Just as evolution is anything but “random”. But the reason is how events, no matter how good or bad, may change you, not because events are following a scripted plot floating out there in the cosmos.

  • Love this – I have loathed the “everything happens for a reason” way of thinking as long as I’ve known of it. I was just in Spain on a trip for travel bloggers. One day a group of us missed a bus for a day trip because the time was changed after the previous day’s session and we hadn’t known of the change. Hardly a tragedy in the scheme of things. But I got ballistic when one of the people said “Everything happens for a reason”. I said “the reason is we didn’t know the bus was leaving earlier so we missed it. It isn’t part of some divine plan.” After a few seconds the person who’d made the comment laughed and said “yeah, you’re probably right”. We all laughed and went to a gelateria. Must have been for a reason. Oh yeah, we all like gelato.

  • Lisa Frost says:

    I could NOT agree with you more!! Hearing people say that makes me CRAZY!! 🙂

  • “Anything that happens, happens.

    Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.

    Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.

    It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.” Douglas Adams

    When Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer, he joked that when he asked the Universe, “why me”, the universe replied, “well why not you?”

  • Annie says:

    Thank you. I love you. Things just happen, whether we deal with them with grace is the only choice we really have.

  • Nicole says:

    It is so nice to hear someone else to say this aloud. I have thought this a million times since my own cancer diagnosis. Even though I have been lucky enough to find good things during cancer treatment, I don’t think any of them are the reason I developed cancer and I find it patronizing when others insist that they are.

  • Karpo says:

    I have hated this expression for years. It is a stupid saying that other people repeat simply because it has been used over and over and over again. It is a phrase that is used when you can’t think of anything better or intelligent to say. In other words, you don’t want to put your mind to work OR put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

    It is a mindless, hurtful thing to say to someone. Because this “bad thing” did not happen to them, they want to simply tie everything up in a pretty little package so they don’t have to think about it.

    Instead, say something supportive, or don’t say anything- Just listen.

  • janet says:

    I totally agree, I love your honesty! Another people always say I hate ” you are so strong”! I feel weak, angry, frustrated! Not strong! What would it look like if they thought I wasn’t strong? What choice do I have but deal with what I have been given!

  • Ameena Meer says:

    i know it’s frustrating when you are in the throes of it, but i do believe that everything happens for a reason. i believe that when one door closes, another door opens. i believe that illness comes to heal your life in a way you wouldn’t have thought possible. i’ve had cancer, meningitis, a rare liver virus, shingles, was hit by a taxi, lost my job, was evicted (along with my three kids), sued by a vicious ex – and every single challenge brought me to a greater level of understanding and compassion.
    you are amazing and wonderful and i pray for your complete healing in every way possible. remember there is beauty all around you.

  • Rob W. says:

    Thanks, Lisa, for the site. Thanks, everyone, for the posts. As Mori is telling us, the human brain / mind is a meaning-making machine. Making meaning out of stuff, of course, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can have survival value; on the other hand, it can make us delusional. On this site I read about one example after another of people trying to find meaning in illness; the most delusional part of this is when someone who is not the patient tries to do this for the person who is the patient.

    I hope that it is okay for me to share and example of this sort of thing which is not about cancer, but is about death and bereavement. A friend of mine is heartbroken (to put it mildly) because all she has ever wanted was to be a mom. Instead, however, she had multiple miscarriages, life-threatening complications, and at least one stillborn child. She said that people are always trying to be helpful by trying to explain things. My friend does not find these attempts helpful. On one occasion someone told her, “Oh, I know what happened. You’re late mother needed an angel to play with in heaven, so G-d took your baby away.” Well-meaning? I would imagine so. Helpful? I doubt it. Bizarre? I sure think so!

  • Merrie says:

    I needed this. Thank you!!! I’ve hated this stupid belief ever since I was 18 and I watched my 43-year-old mother wither away and die from stupid cancer. She wanted to live so desperately she once said, “If I die, I’m going to beg Jesus to let me come back.” And when she died, and the aftermath went on, and all seven of us kids have lived our lives without her, I just want to scream at the world, “whatever makes you feel better, that’s what matters, right?” But I’m pretty sure it didn’t make my mom feel better, or me, or the rest of us. It made us feel crappy. And when my son was diagnosed with SMA, a rare, fatal neuromuscular disease that would take his life before age 2, I started hearing those chants over and over. And I did get angry. I lashed out. “Do you really think this boy’s life is so insignificant that a god would say, I’m going to give him this fatal disease so everyone around him can learn from it?” Maybe, I’m no authority on God, but that sure seemed pretty cruel.

    I notice now, nobody says things like that to me anymore. I think they know, “She’s temperamental. She’s shut off. She’s hardhearted.” Again, whatever makes them feel better. I think the better, less dismissive response, is to get in there and be with the suffering people, in their pain, and hold their hand, and recognize just how awful it is, and also how inevitable it is, but never, ever, try to paint a smiley face on crappy things. It just seems so self-serving. They can walk away knowing all is well, while we the sufferers, are left holding the booby prize all alone. We’re not even allowed to think it’s shitty.

  • Virginia says:

    I’m new to your blog and simply want to say: “Bravo!” I will learn from my “f**king cancer,” I will grow, learn and share experiences. I will make something of this time and hope that what I make of it will be a good thing BUT I will NOT let you take away my pain, my growth, maybe even my death by saying “It happened for a reason.” Or even worse that somehow G*d caused this to teach me/others some important lesson. The God in whom I believe is all about Love. She gives me strength and shares my pain. Cancer is not from God. God weeps with me.

    Merrie, I felt such compassion when I read your post. I’m with you! This is shitty! I am so glad that you are not letting others diminish or take away your love for your mother & son by white-washing it with their notion of God! In the Christian experience we are taught that God experienced the horrible death of a son. Could one possibly experience that and then inflict it on another? NO! I hope that God is with you in your pain, offering not a simple explanation but caring and consolation. I’m with you: this sucks. Period. We will survive and, with strength and help, we will grow and live but we will never look back and say “Oh, now I get it!” Like some math problem finally solved.
    Take care.

  • Kay says:

    I clicked on this particular blog because I say this very same thing. Life is a bunch of random acts. It is not written. What a cruel joke that would be to just watch us down here running around like mice, thinking we are choosing to turn left or right.

    There is no reason at all for cancer. Just none at all.

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