Everything happens for a reason, or so they say

This quote by inspirational-advice author Harvey Mackay appeared in one of my social media feeds recently, and at the time I didn’t pay much attention except to think that it was pretty much platitudes, but platitudes that I agreed with.

HarveyMacKayQuote

However, a few incidents close to home and lots of unsettling world news have got me rethinking one of these statements.  You can guess which one it is from the title of this post: Believe everything happens for a reason.

ReasonCartoon

Does the death of a young child caught in a shooting or while being smuggled across the U.S.-Canada border in sub-zero temperatures happen for a reason?  And, if so, does that expression give us an excuse not to worry about it?

Does the loss of a home to fire caused by faulty heating in frigid temperatures happen for a reason?  Well. Yes, I suppose it does.  It happens because people don’t have enough money for safer forms of heating or because someone was careless, but is that supposed to somehow make it all right?

Does a child or young adult being diagnosed with a debilitating disease happen for a reason?  And if we thought it did, would/could that help the child (and parents) or young adult cope better with their situation?

Does someone who loses their job and can’t imagine how they’re going to pay their rent or feed their family feel any better if they believe that losing their job happened for a reason?  Or would thinking that everything happens for a reason motivate them to consider new, improved options?

As it turns out, this particular saying is thought to have originated way back with Aristotle.  However, he didn’t mean for it to be used to excuse everything that happens or to try to intimate that you get what you deserve.  The true meaning Aristotle had in mind is that every event in your life is an opportunity for you to learn and grow.  Out of tough times, we actually can become stronger.  I hasten to add, this doesn’t mean that we will!  But opportunity lurks, and it is up to us to recognize it and seize it.  Or, using another related trite phrase: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

If you think about some of the examples of tough/terrible/tragic situations I suggested above, which of those lemons could be turned into lemonade?

For many of the tragedies we read about daily, where innocent civilians are being killed or maimed as collateral damage in criminal or military activity, I can only think of a few possible positive outcomes.  These events may help raise awareness and result in changes in public behaviour, laws, and/or security measures.  Gosh, they sure should.

For people who lose everything in fires (or to war, famine, etc.), those who are able to find the opportunity can not only help themselves but also help others.  Those who are able to pick up the pieces and move forward, perhaps with help from the community, from an employer, or from an aid agency, may find new opportunities await that they had never dreamed of.

For young people having to live with devastating physical challenges, there are many inspirational stories of individuals who have overcome seemingly impossible physical challenges to succeed in everything from the arts (e.g., Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli) to sports to being a world-renowned scientist (e.g., Stephen Hawking).  Those who overcome obstacles not of their own making become an inspiration to so many others.  These are people who see the glass half full.

For people who lose their jobs or who have come to a dead end in their current one – often for reasons of mental health in these COVID times – they may find that the scary risk of giving up known security (regular paycheque) for unknown opportunities, the rewards are many.  I believe what the media calls the Great Resignation is a sign that many people have come to that very conclusion.

An excellent blog post by AP2 at Pointless Overthinking this morning addresses some of these issues.  Called Diversions, AP2 describes his own struggles with whether to stay with the known – which is becoming more difficult to swallow but provides that all-important security for his family – or cut ties and explore new opportunities.  His conclusion speaks to what I believe is the true meaning behind ‘everything happens for a reason’:

I am scared.

I realise it’s ok to acknowledge that. But, like Winston Churchill once said, you have to be willing to leave the shore to explore new oceans. Of course, that’s going to leave you stranded at sea for a while.

But, that’s exactly what an adventure is. The human spirit can only be made in adventure. Provided I back myself to navigate the tricky waters ahead, I believe I can teach my children something that no amount of money ever will: what it really means to live.

ScaryChanges

Cartoon source: Pinterest

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27 Responses to Everything happens for a reason, or so they say

  1. Pingback: Everything happens for a reason, or so they say | AM Simpson

  2. ShiraDest says:

    The biggest problem with that phrase is that child abuse makes this phrase one which tells a child ‘you are the problem’ when the perpetrator is telling the child to keep a secret, and/or that the child is bad/evil/fatally flawed. It says to the child that if it happened for a reason, then I must not deserve to exist.

    Shira

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s another very “good” example of why that expression as interpreted is just plain wrong, expecting recipients of cruelty, disease, accidents, disabilities, bullying, etc. to just accept their lot. As the post reminds us, that was never the intent of the saying way back when.

  3. Another thoughtful post, Jane. “Everything happens for a reason” is a saying my mother always used to say but, like you, I really question the way it’s used, and what it truly means. The other saying that troubles me is “What doesn’t kill you make you stronger”. Well, no, actually. The world is filled with broken people whose misfortunes and tragedies have worn them down to the point of suffering significant physical and mental health challenges. I’m a glass half-full person, but I sure sympathize with those who don’t have access to a single glass of anything.

  4. OmniRunner says:

    When you make lemonade out of lemons, then you can say everything happens for a reason. It’s a learning experience.
    But some of the tragedies you cited, I just don’t see how those folks even got their lemons.

  5. My mom used to say that (everything happens for a reason). I never understood it, but I later came to realize that my own struggles have strengthened me. I don’t think the words fit for senseless tragedies.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are a shining example in that regard, Crystal! And I completely agree about the saying not seeming to have a fit with senseless tragedy, except perhaps for examples such as the one LA suggested. I think that’s why so many of us struggle with the saying.

  6. AP2 says:

    Wonderful post Jane. Thank you for the mention. It can be hard to reconcile meaning when faced with tragedy. I think – God or not – a certain amount of faith is needed. We can’t always connect the dots looking forward. Often things only make sense down the road, after we’ve taken that step into unknown. 🙏

  7. Wynne Leon says:

    Wow, what a deep and interesting post, Jane! Going beyond platitudes to plumb the depth of hardship, change, learning and spirit. Thank you so much for this gift!

  8. boblorentson says:

    Great job covering an idiom that always made me cringe. And for clueing me in to the Pointless Overthinking blog.

  9. Bad things do happen, and at times all we can do is bear them as best we can. At times we can learn from them, which is good. Still…

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Still, indeed. So many terrible things are beyond comprehension. But how we pick ourselves up from those bad things and try to do honour to them matters. I don’t disagree with your “Still …”

  10. LA says:

    I just read a book about people who died from radium poisoning. Horrible, tragic deaths for these people. However, this started reforms to cover people from workplace issues. I don’t want to see anyone suffer. However, bad is part of life. We will never live in a world with no bad. But unless we know bad, we can’t know good. It might seem insensitive but it’s reality.

  11. Oh Jane this one is really deep and can certainly lead me down a deep rabbit hole! My take is that statement really means life is preprogrammed and it doesn’t matter what we do because it was all preplanned? I have some “Christian” relatives who tend to think that way and use it as a catch phrase, I think, to explain away some of the horrible things that happen.
    I agree that we can learn from happenings and it has always amazed me how circumstances can be a downfall or an incentive depending on the person. Thus, I find it difficult to believe that it was meant to be when 2 people have vastly different outcomes from the same beginning.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Well, Wayne, that IS an interpretation, in particular the idea that it’s all part of ‘God’s plan’. However, that’s not the very longstanding interpretation of everything happening for a reason. If we want to stick with the interpretation involving God’s plan for us, we could remind those people that God helps those who help themselves. Following that reminder, if there are opportunities to be explored then it within you to do so. It’s up to you to choose the path of least resistance (and possibly remain unhappy and bitter) or to embrace a change in expectations. I think that’s the broadly understood (and certainly more inspirational!) interpretation of that quote.

      • I agree with the optimistic view and think that some amount of tribulation is good for us. However, even though Aristotle probably coined this phrase, I don’t think even he could at times not question the idea that it was all dependent on character. To me this statement just smacks too much of fatalism– whatever will be will be?

        • Jane Fritz says:

          But that’s a major point of the saying. It’s saying that when some unexpected happens, good or bad, what can we learn from it? What can we change to take advantage of it or to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Not everyone will explore options that unexpectedly arise out of tragic events or serendipitous ones. Some people aren’t risk takers, some people find it easier to blame others for their failures, whatever. There’s nothing inherently fatalistic in the saying at all, just in how it’s interpreted. You can tell from the way Harvey Mackay inserted it into the middle of his well-distributed quote, intended to inspire, that he didn’t interpret it as fatalistic. But it sounds like you’re better off just not using it! 😏

  12. This is an eyeopener! You touched my soul and you’re making me think. I love having a glass half full!!

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