“Everything happens for a reason” — umm, that’s bullshit

It sucks right now. You’re stuck in your house. You’re running out of toilet paper. Your 401(k) is tanking. Why is this happening?

I recently mentioned the problem while working out with my personal trainer. (We’ve moved out sessions from the local gym to a field outdoors — I bring all my own equipment, and she stands six feet away and tells me what to do.)

“Well,” she said. “I don’t know. Everything happens for a reason.”

That made me angry.

What does that mean, anyway?

Why is all this stuff happening? Oh sure, there are reasons. It’s because we weren’t prepared for a pandemic. Or it’s because of an unregulated wet market in China. Or it’s because people travelled when they shouldn’t have, or because our diets make us ill prepared to fight off disease, or because . . . well, you probably have your own explanation. Because when you’re sitting in your house, grumbling, you are probably thinking of lots of reasons. We want to blame somebody.

But I don’t think that’s what “everything happens for a reason” means.

If you’re religious and you believe God works in deliberate but nonobvious ways, then “everything happens for a reason” means that there is an unseen force manipulating your life and everyone else’s. This is a trial. The Lord works in mysterious ways, but you can have faith that you will gain something from this trial you are going through.

Even if you are not religious, some people deal with adversity by seeking out the hidden meaning. You become a paraplegic so you can learn to inspire others as a public speaker. You run out of milk and invent a new nondairy cookie recipe. You are cut off from your friends and forced to stay at home with your kids, so you . . . well, you finish the sentence.

I don’t buy any of that. All those explanations are based on the idea that there is a hidden purpose in what happens to you, and if you can find the purpose, you can rise above it.

You can believe that if you want, if it makes you feel better. But I just cannot embrace it.

I don’t believe things happen for a (personal) reason. If you get cancer, you get cancer. If you get hit by a truck, marry the wrong person, get laid off from your job because of a recession, or get trapped by a global pandemic . . . my advice is not to search for the “reason” you got so unlucky.

Two questions that matter

In my world, there are only two questions that matter when you deal with misfortune.

The first is, what are you going to learn from it? There is certainly a lot to learn when shit goes wrong. People who experience misfortune and learn from it are smarter. Those who make the same mistakes repeatedly are going to suffer, and the “reason” is that they weren’t paying attention.

The second question is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to take the time you’ve been given and learn a new skill? Are you going to find a way to reconnect with your children and how their minds work? Are you going to call your family and see how they are doing? Are you going to go food shopping with a mask and gloves on?

Here’s the recap: “Everything happens for a reason” = resignation and drifting with the current. Seeking reasons in random misfortune is just a way to make yourself feel better.

“What did you learn, and what are you going to do about it?” = moving forward with your life and making something out of what happened to you.

It sucks right now. We are grieving our way of life. It’s a huge pain in the ass. It may even be life threatening.

But what are you going to do about it?

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  1. Josh, I understand why you are opposed to quietism, but why do you think that it follows from saying that everything happens for a reason? For example, for many Christians, a reason for the coronavirus might be that God is calling us to be less self-centered and more focused on helping each other. This would be a good reason in view of the polarization in our world that many, including you, have rightly decried.

    1. I respect that belief, if you or anyone else have it.

      But I am not spending time figuring out what God is trying to teach us. If your belief drives you to reach out to others as a result of this experience, I welcome your efforts. I just don’t personally see that connection, even if some Christians do.

      Others may use this as an excuse to hate foreigners. Who’s to say which reason is right? Interpretations of God’s intentions are pretty hard to verify.

      I suspect I’ll never have a meeting of the minds with people of faith. But that’s just me.

      My reaction to the phrase “everything happens for a reason” is just my personal reaction. Your mileage may vary.

  2. This post ended up in a much more positive place than I thought it was going when I started it. I like the idea of acting, doing something, rather than being passive.

  3. Believing that things happen for a reason does not preclude you from asking the second two questions – in fact, that might be how you learn the reason, if you ever learn it.

    1. Possibly…..we (humans) assign a reason retrospectively, then assume that this reason was the intention underlying/causing the event. But there are logical fallacies here:

      1) We anthropomorphize the universe. If a god or intelligently acting cosmos exists, we can’t assume that its motives mirror those of humans.

      2) Consequences don’t necessarily point to Causes. Let’s say that, motivated by the corona virus, more people feel and act compassionately towards the ill. We can only say that this is a beneficial consequence of a circumstance; we can’t attribute a priori **intention** to the virus (or to any esoteric forces behind the scenes). Regardless of any a priori intentions (whether they exist or not), we CAN learn from the experience, use it to gain wisdom. The “lesson learned” need not imply an original “reason for”.

  4. I also often feel irked by the statement that “Everything happens for a reason”. The statement assumes that 1) the universe is conscious AND 2) that this conscious universe cares enough about me or my species (human) to intervene in and micromanage our lives. As only one among 7.5 billion people, on a planet orbiting a sun that’s only one of several trillion stars in this galaxy, I don’t see myself (or this planet) as important enough to warrant micromanagement by a (conscious) universe. Thus, I generally regard the universe as indifferent.

    Sh#t happens….maybe the result of random events, maybe not. If something occurs due to Reason X, but I can’t see or comprehend X, then this feels the same as something occurring by chance. Yes, it’s possible that a mysterious “hidden hand” personally orchestrates the events of our lives; however, if the methods and motives of this “hidden hand” are unfathomable to the human mind, there’s no way for me to discern whether events are random or “for a reason”. This leads to an agnostic position; I can neither deny nor confirm that which lies beyond my perception and comprehension.

    “Everything happens for a reason”, or “God, some Higher Power, has orchestrated this to teach us something and thus help us improve” brings up that classic question from college sophomore philosophy classes: If God is simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent and all-good, how do we explain suffering? Surely, such an exalted Intelligence could find a less punishing way of teaching us a lesson; surely, such a God would be smarter than a human father who, due to cluelessness, acts recklessly or harshly.

    Saying “everything happens for a reason”, without naming or attempting to find that “reason”, seems like 1) a means of emotionally placating oneself or 2) a means of terminating or redirecting conversation about an uncomfortable topic. Sometimes (similar to attributing suffering to karma), this comment implicitly blames the victim, frames illness as a kind of just retribution: “You are sick….because you sinned, accumulated bad karma, in the past; you brought this on yourself, buster, now it’s payback time!”

    I prefer to ask “What are possible solutions?”. I look for “reasons”, in the hope that such knowledge will let me intervene effectively to change a bad circumstance, and help me to prevent a future recurrence.

    1. Charmaine, as I said in my original comment to Josh, I do not think quietism is necessarily the response to thinking that everything happens for a reason. I agree with you that even Christians cannot always come up with one definitive reason for things. However, as I believe that God may be allowing the coronavirus disaster (1) to motivate me to do more to help people in need and (2) to get people to move from polarization to cooperation, these would be positive results. This does not mean that a disaster is a good thing, but it can mean that good can come from a terrible thing.

      1. Ha! They had to blame something on the Millennials though. Great article, I am also annoyed by the “all things for all reasons” comment. It is placating and not dealing with difficult emotions or experiences. I think the more people placate the less progress and growth in life, hence while I feel that many people of religious faiths are stagnant in may ways ( I was one of them for 30 years) now I want the hard truth, no matter how harsh, my goal is not to lessen the reality of any situation, experience, or loss in life.

  5. Things do happen for a reason. Many road “accidents” happen because many people drink and drive, or play with their phones while driving or drive when tired. The list goes on. How we deal with bad things defines us, eg do we make the best of a bad situation or do we fall into despair? However, to say there is some master plan diverts blame from the real reason or person that caused the event.

  6. Even as a Christian, I agree with the blogger’s sentiments. In most cases, what happens in our lives is an effect of human actions. We definitely do placate ourselves by holding onto the notion that basically everything is beyond our control and “written into our story” by fate, but no matter what way you look at it, our major concern should be moving past life’s events being better equipped mentally, emotionally, perhaps even physically for what life holds from thereon out. If this belief helps you do so successfully, so be it. Why wonder about the control a higher being holds when all you are really in control of in this life is yourself?

    1. Rita, you made some interesting points. If something is the result of human actions, than it did happen for a reason (cause-effect). I also agree that the only person I can control is myself. I learned this through parenting. 🙂 There are some things for which we may never find the reason, but I think it’s good to try to find one. For me, the Christian aspect comes through trying to follow biblical principles. For example, if several proverbs say that pride goes before a fall, and if I had some kind of metaphorical fall, it might benefit me to reflect on whether my pride was the cause of it (the reason). Does this make sense?

  7. Everything does happen for a reason but that phrase is often misinterpreted due to the language limitation. There isn’t greater intent rather than causality… There is no conscious plan or desire of how things play out… But underlying reasons or causes lead to future events. So in that causality sense events have causes regardless if the perceiver understands the reasons or oblivious to it… The effect still occurs. Like too much pressure a balloon burst… We might not understand it but it still happens cuz the reasons causing the pressure. Ppl work the same way and alot of time the lack of awareness makes it feel like chaos but the more we start to understand the more predictable it becomes… Aka ppl who set the lines in sports betting in Vegas. There’s no greater intent just one event causing the next and so forth.

  8. I’m a Christian but I believe the “everything happens for a reason” is ridiculous. I appreciate this article! I also hear non-Christians that believe in “the universe” and they seem to hold to the same thinking. It drives me crazy. You get out of life what you out into it. Things happen because of logical reasons. I feel like a lot of people miss out on good things in life because of this reasoning.

  9. Krysia, I am not sure that I follow what you are saying. First you wrote that it is ridiculous to say that everything happens for a reason, but later you wrote that things happen because of logical reasons. Can you clarify?

    1. Darrell, I think the point is that the reasons things happen are logical reasons, not because of God’s plan for you. If you fall and break your arm it is because you didn’t notice the stone on the sidewalk, not because God needs you to have the experience of a broken arm to make you a better person.

  10. I used to believe that everything happens for a reason, but as more and more unfortunate (and sometimes tragic) things happen, whether to me or to the people in my life, and there is no good reason for it, my faith in that phrase has decreased considerably, along with my faith in God and humanity. I’ve had most of my worst nightmares come true, but none of my dreams. I’d be interested to see what you might say about the Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11. I enjoyed your reflections on this phrase, and the questions you pose are much more optimistic than just throwing everything that happens to fate.

    1. If Jeremiah brought you here, to me, I tell you to learn from your experience and move forward based on what you have learned.

      Jeremiah appears to want you to accept what happened. Once you’ve done that, what will you do next?