Does everything really happen for a reason?

Ok, what reason is this for?

Ok, what reason is this for?
(Image courtesy of Microsoft clipart)

Given a choice of several phrases that annoy me, pedantic person that I am when it gets down to un-thought-out phrases, this is one of the worst. When something bad happens to someone and they, or someone else attempts to justify it with the well trodden, often well intended, but actually somewhat meaningless phrase “well everything happens for a reason”, I almost want to punch them in the head. Does it really?

Well of course from a low level everything does happen for a reason. If I were to break my leg whilst attempting to ski, then it likely happened for several reasons. For example, I’m new to skiing, I’m not very good at it, my balance is terrible, I went over the wrong place, I attempted something I wasn’t capable of, I wasn’t watching where I was going, I didn’t know how to stop, and so on and so forth. But this isn’t usually what people mean by this phrase. They mean it in the sense of it being part of a greater plan of which we are just a pawn, or that we are only slightly aware of it, or only partially tuned in to. It is about destiny. Something bad happens, this ought to teach you some valuable lesson that leads you down a positive path, and something good happens. You have to have some good to pay for the bad. Or some magic Karma will balance it out and a good thing will happen anyway. None of this shit makes any sense to me.

The simple truth of things is that good things happen to people and bad things happen to people. On the whole the average person will roughly balance out, hopefully having what they consider to be more positive events happen in their life than negative ones. But some people will have a lot more negative ones, others much more positive ones. Although our lives are often shaped by events that we have no control of, for example to whom and where we are born, or for a different example, a random accident, that is not always the case. We are defined by how we deal with the scenarios we find ourselves in, and the choices we make. Depending on context, we can have some control over this by making good decisions, or taking opportunities if they arise. But inevitably we will miss some opportunities because we make a bad call, or we miss the opportunity due to timing, or we don’t know the right people. Some people will know the right people, get the opportunities, whether we consider them deserved or not, or have a good awareness or knowledge, and make good decisions. Some people will not. Our lives might be shaped by events or choices, but part of a greater plan? I think not. People are different and some are just more fortunate than others.

Inevitably this “reason” idea is hollow because I simply do not believe that choices are for the most part, being made for me, in a meaningful fashion. Or that if they were, that there is some logic or reasoning behind it. Let me give you an example. Let us say I lost a close friend in a car accident when I was 20 years old (I didn’t but stay with me, this is based on a real example). I was somewhat consumed by grief but eventually I got over it, and made some good decisions. What would this be teaching me? That I should do something positive with my life? I should not ride in a car. Let’s say my friend was a good person, who did charitable work. The person was not a great driver, but that said, they were not to blame, and a drunk driver hit them. What does it mean? The drunk driver ought to learn a severe lesson in their life? But what relevance does that have to the dead person? Is the drunk, a higher priority life, that someone must die to teach them a valuable life lesson? What about the life that died? What if they did nothing to deserve it?

To put that a different way, if you could talk to the person who passed away just prior to the event itself and tell them they were about to die, but not to worry, it is happening for a reason, just probably one you won’t understand, what do you think they would say? Maybe, “I don’t think this reason is good enough”. Or something along the lines of “But I still have so much to do”? Or more likely, “what was this highly important reason”?

It actually happened because of someone drinking when inebriated, and one person was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or just in a place, at the wrong time. Try telling the families of recent shooting tragedies that these terrible event happened for a “greater” reason. Some might be eventually inspired in a positive way, but I would hazard a guess that many feel like their lives have been destroyed, parents with their children, never having the chance to fulfill much of their potential. Be positive to move on but don’t patronise with “part of a greater plan” reasoning.

I don’t believe there is any plan to life other than what you create for yourself out of the situations you find yourself in. For some this will be horrifically bad, for some the opposite, and mostly good. For most, if you want to get somewhere in life then you need to get about achieving it. Do some positive things, learn something, educate yourself to the various environments you inhabit. Learn when something goes wrong, accept it and use that lesson on a later opportunity. Sometimes things will happen that are out of your control. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong, although it might. It doesn’t mean you were the victim of a choice you were not aware of, although it might. But I just cannot reason how it could be possibly be part of this fabled “reason” or greater plan. It is just something you will have to deal with, in your own way, when you are capable of doing so. Be brave, you only have the one life. Take control and realise it is you who can make it better.

And now for something completely different:

Today is the one year anniversary of the blog. Yep Happy Birthday blog me. So to celebrate, here is Elbow covering the Destiny’s Child track “Independent woman”, set to a Joel Veitch animation with cats. How is it related? It isn’t, I just thought I would remind people it exists:

Or see the original here at Joel’s brilliant site


51 comments on “Does everything really happen for a reason?

  1. DyingNote says:

    That question is the next best thing to God to conveniently ‘explain’ away events. But is there a reason you’re in this philosophical frame of mind? >;->

    • Elliot says:

      It’s one of those things where it can explain away a bad thing happening even if it actually doesn’t.

      I’ve had this and a number of other ideas floating round for a while which I realised were connected so I’m going to work through those. Plus I like the experiment of it (what discussion comes out of it, writing posts to a theme, what else related can I come up with) which is interesting to me.

  2. DyingNote says:

    And congratulations on the blog anniversary! I’ll drink to that. See I have a reason for a binge >;->

  3. Well said, Happy Anniversary, and great wee video! Have a happy Friday! Make it happen 🙂

  4. People say that “everything happens for a reason” because they can’t deal with the randomness of life. It’s more comfortable to believe there’s a larger plan. Good or bad, stuff happens.

    • Elliot says:

      I agree. It bothers me when it is said as I often think, if you think through that comment, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. It is throwaway so you don’t really have to think about it.

      Thanks for your comments.

  5. Margarita says:

    You remind me how mindlessly we use language, and how frequently it’s better to keep my mouth shut! Yes, there’s always a reason…usually not some mystical, esoteric one, though! Happy anniversary on blogging! xoM

  6. I noticed, with interest, that one of your tags is “pile of shit”, which is what that phrase is. Very thought-provoking post, and an important reminder to think before we say things that are cliched, untrue and just plain crap anyway. People use phrases like this when they don’t know what else to say. Happy Birthday to the Blog!

    • Elliot says:

      I put that tag in for my amusement wondering if someone would pick up on it. I wonder how many other posts I can tag with it, then come the end of the year, see what they were.

      What scares me about this phrase is some people actually do believe it. I think the next time someone says it (context permitting), I’m going to ask what the reason is.

  7. Carrie Rubin says:

    “The simple truth of things is that good things happen to people and bad things happen to people.”—My mother-in-law, who passed away a few years ago from cancer, used to say something very similar to people when they told her, “It’s not fair that bad things happen to good people.” She was indeed a good person, probably the best person I’ve ever known, but I thought her point was so valid. So I have to say, I agree with you on this. I also agree that to a large extent, we do have control over our lives, and one of my pet peeves is when someone says someone is “lucky” because they’ve achieved one thing or the other. Usually a lot of hard work was behind that “luck.”

    Great post and Happy Blog Birthday!

    • Elliot says:

      I’m afraid “fair” doesn’t come into it for the majority of things. We are a mix of the situations we find ourselves in, how prepared we are for these (experience, learning, etc), and the choices we then make (dive right in, cannot be bothered, etc). It being part of a greater plan, no and to a lesser extent, it being fair (only if in a scenario where someone else is making a choice) don’t come into it.

      This idea about luck is also an interesting one and maybe one deserving of a post itself. I agree with what you are saying especially in the context of working hard at something, then getting the pay off for it, is especially annoying when someone puts it down to luck. On the other hand I can think of examples, or have seen examples where who you know, or even what you look like, is an over riding factor, over looking the hard work someone else might have put in. Those would be the more lucky ones. The annoying part is when someone cannot see or maybe not understand the difference between the two.

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        Agreed. Some people come into things because they are in the right place at the right time. Then hopefully even they would recognize their good fortune.

    • Smaktakula says:

      So if things don’t happen just because of luck, could there be…I don’t know…a reason?

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        Yes. I believe it’s called a horoscope…

      • Smaktakula says:

        Oooh, I’m gonna meet a tall, handsome stranger today!

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        And his name is Ru Paul!

      • Smaktakula says:

        I’ll just close my eyes, grit my teeth and tell myself that everything happens for a reason.

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        That’s all you can do. Good luck. Watch out for Ru’s heels.

      • Smaktakula says:

        It’ll be hard to keep an eye on them when they’re dug into my thighs, but I get your meaning.

      • Elliot says:

        Again here in this reply to Carrie you are drawing a strange line between reason at a lower level e.g. hard work and effort can be perceived as luck, but that has the aforementioned reason(s) for what occurs, and this larger, what I consider false reason that it was part of a larger plan, out of our control. Although as I pointed out in my reply, that is a similar but slightly different thing, the perception of “luck” (and maybe a different post).

        You might for example, work your ass off to achieve something, and then someone else gets it because they happened to know a vital person. That might be perceived as luck on their part in comparison to what you got. On the other hand you might have got it and not them and you would have a much better shout for the reasons of hard work and effort being the reasons rather than the perception of luck.

      • Smaktakula says:

        You’re reading too deeply into this one. Again, as you pointed out in your original post, if you look at it a certain way, everything has a reason.

      • Elliot says:

        Yeah I was getting on a roll from the earlier reply! – I must thank you for your thoughts on this post, and taking the time to put them up here.

      • Smaktakula says:

        No problem, Elliot. You’re fierce in defending your beliefs, but you argue like a gentleman. Wish there were more of that out there.

  8. robincoyle says:

    I dislike that expression too. What reason could there possibly be for taking my dear friend from me at the age of 36? What reason is there to give a woman of three young children cancer?

  9. jmmcdowell says:

    I’ve never been a fan of that platitude, either. It leaves me thinking things like “What kind of God thinks this horrific event should happen?” Sometimes, we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and a tragedy unfolds that isn’t “fair.” Good people suffer horrible fates at the hands of thoughtless/careless/immoral others.

    All we can do is our best to be smart, safe, and responsible. And if we make a wrong decision and survive, it’s likely because of sheer chance and not divine intervention. I have to believe that because I can’t believe in a God who would allow so much tragedy, horror, and stupidity to rule on Earth.

    • Elliot says:

      I couldn’t agree more. None of those things you mention at the end of the comment seem to reconcile with the religious God(s) many like to preach about do they? Not in any logical kind of way.

  10. I hate that expression. I know a lot of people use it to try to “look on the bright side” when bad things happen, but the fact is that as you and the other commenters here have said, sometimes terrible things happen to wonderful people, and there is no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes great things happen to absolutely awful people too. There’s no justification for that either. It’s a roll of the dice. Sometimes you get lucky sixes, sometimes you get snake eyes. Just probability and stuff, really.

    • Elliot says:

      Yep exactly that. Life isn’t fair, it is somewhat a roll of the dice, and we ought to try make good choices when we get the opportunity to do so otherwise all we have is complaining about the things that happen to us, and hoping they work out well on their own. Will they? Well they might. But they might not as well.

    • Smaktakula says:

      Good people do suffer horrible fates they don’t deserve, but the ones who are able to make sense of these tragedies are the ones who prosper. I’d recommend Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the theory of which he formulated while in Auschwitz. So many people survived those camps only to be devastated by the experience. Frankl consciously chose the framework in which he would see his life, and found meaning in his suffering. Because he believed that his experience had meaning, he was able to formulate a theory which helps people to this day.

      Everything happens for a reason or everything is chaos. Which one is correct depends on you.

      • Elliot says:

        Did he find meaning after the events, in the events that happened to him (the experience), or did he find that the events must therefore have happened so that he could find some meaning in the experience (as part of a greater plan)?

      • Smaktakula says:

        That’s a really good question. I really can’t speak to that, but I’d suspect it’s the former.

  11. Smaktakula says:

    I haven’t seen Rather Good in ages. I loved the Spongemonkeys, although I was in the minority there.

    I guess I’m gonna take the unpopular view here. I LIKE the expression everything happens for a reason. I think it helps people contextualize their lives. First of all, as you pointed out, if you want to get technical about it, everything does have a reason (i.e., I broke my leg because I tripped). But I get what you’re saying.

    However, I believe in creating ones own reason, in contextualizing an individual framework for your own life. With that in mind, I can look back on almost every event in my life and find a reason for it that fits within the context of my life today. It might be argued that this is sort of artificial, since I’m actively choosing how these events fit into a larger framework, and that criticism would be valid. But at the same time, our very perceptions are subjective. If, for example, you and I were both to sit down and write about reality, both of our experiences would be very different, and neither would be any more correct (except individually to us). Reality is subjective, and as such, so are the events in our lives. So yeah, I do believe everything happens for a reason.

    What I don’t get is the hostility you and many of the other commenters seem to feel about people who believe this way. I think it’s fair to say that you (and here I’m using a broad “you,” not just Elliot) feel some contempt for these people. I don’t feel contempt for people who feel that life is just a series of random, meaningless encounters, I just feel a little sad for them.

    I really do believe that if the framework you choose to explain your reality makes you happy, then it’s fine. If believing that everything happens for a reason brings someone peace and contentment, what exactly does someone get out of busting their bubble?

    • Elliot says:

      You got some mileage out of this post didn’t you?

      I don’t quite understand feeling a little sad for someone who believes life is random meaningless encounters, they might be quite happy the way they are. I’m not sure who these people might be. Having a random event happen, e.g. someone crashing into your car on the way to work, might be random in the not in your control, won’t happen everyday sense, but it doesn’t make it meaningless either. You could be happy or sad about it, change your route, campaign for this or that, or whatever outcome you decide. But that doesn’t mean the event happened as part of a greater plan and therefore a reason other than the actual small events that caused it.

      It might be fun to trace the event back and look at the small things that led up to it, e,g, leaving the house 5 minutes late, a text arriving on a phone to say something had been forgotten, or whatever they might be. There is beauty, ugliness, joy, sadness and the whole range of things (which feed fiction) to be found in the place where the events we can control in our lives meet the things that we have no control of. These add the meaning. But I cannot reconcile that this is part of a greater plan that the karma decided it was time to create and event, or that some being out there decided these events need to happen because it is part of a greater plan.

      I can easily see how someone might choose this framework of understanding because it can add some justification to why something happens, and indicate that some good things should also be happening soon. That is fine, I have no problems with people choosing what they want to believe. But people often say it as a fact or without justification to explain something. No what they mean is for themselves, everything might happen for a reason, but I don’t see why it should be sent my way as if that view is necessarily correct and that is it. But the reason people don’t really say much about it, and this is a perfectly good reason, is that people saying it, don’t always realise what they are actually saying, usually don’t intend to offend by saying it, and have no wish to enter into a debate about whether philosophically, the view is correct. It is often a throwaway thing, or maybe they truly believe it, but it isn’t considered as putting your belief across in the same way that “It happened because Jesus made it happen” might be.

      • Smaktakula says:

        You got some mileage out of this post didn’t you?

        I did. I thought it was very thought-provoking, as was your reply to my comment (see below).

        I don’t quite understand feeling a little sad for someone who believes life is random meaningless encounters, they might be quite happy the way they are.

        That’s a good point. I should have been more clear in my original statement. I intended it to mean people who who see life as random and chaotic and who are also miserable. I agree, if somebody’s happy seeing life like that, more power to him or her.

        But I cannot reconcile that this is part of a greater plan

        And that’s cool–in this you’re not alone. But I get the idea (and I could be completely off-base on this; let me know if I am) that you feel that those who do believe that way are intellectually suspect (that was the best term I could come up with for what I’m trying to express; ‘stupid’ doesn’t work, and ‘foolish’ is only a pale substitute).

        No what they mean is for themselves

        Again, that’s very true. I really do believe that the way I view my life is the very best way for ME to view it. It works. I’m happy. I have a good life. But all must find our own way home.

        don’t always realise what they are actually saying,

        I hadn’t thought about that, because it’s not something I generally say (even though to a large extent I believe it). There are a lot of stupid things people say when other people are hurting or grieving. You rarely go wrong with “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

        It is often a throwaway thing,

        I guess it depends on whose saying it. You’re right, I’ve heard it countless times as a throwaway line, and while it doesn’t really bother me, it does render the statement completely meaningless. Still, I’ve heard it spoken with love and conviction by well-meaning people who wanted nothing more than to comfort me.

      • Elliot says:

        It’s not specifically meant to imply “intellectually suspect” although it might read that way, more just “not thought out”. And I don’t mean that as “you are wrong” either, just as I pointed out further down about “not realizing what they are saying.

        I think intention is a fair point also. I know what you mean about how it can be said as a means of comfort and I would take the intention even if I do not believe the words per se, themselves. Sometimes the intention behind the words is more valuable than the specifics or the literal sense of what is being said. Of course if someone feels they get both then all the better.

  12. I certainly agree, but still respect those that don’t. They cannot live in a random world. They need hope of better and more. I do not believe that, but I won’t burst their bubble if they do. Nice post, Elliot. HF

    • Elliot says:

      Thanks Harper – I take your point, and usually it isn’t worth the effort to explain it if I think someone genuinely believes it. So I just leave them alone. But what better forum than this?

  13. rtd14 says:

    Belated happy birthday to your blog!

    Elliot, this was a very strong post. You considered a point of view and put your own out there. When I was a teen a kid was killed in a wreck on the way to school. He was a good kid with a quick joke. My friend was 13-years-old. I’ve seen his mother in the years since his death. One thing she said to my mom a little while after he died, “I’m thankful I still have my little girl.” That is not to say her daughter took the place of her son, but she did not know what she would’ve done if he had been her only child. As you said, certain things happen beyond our control.

    Great post!

    • Elliot says:

      Thanks Rebecca – Yes that is why this “everything happens for a reason” does not ring true for me. How can you reconcile the death of a 13 year old like that, with part of a greater plan?

  14. You cover the absurdity very well. Unmerited suffering is probably the most powerful dynamic wherein people lose faith, become atheists or simply hate the creator and no apologists’ arguments have convinced me of the meaningfulness as part of the Plan . Another : ” I am sure it will work out for the best.” Like to smack ’em for that one too.

    • Elliot says:

      Thanks Carl – “I’m sure it will work out for the best” is another one of those. I can recall a couple of times where I’ve heard that said but it doesn’t seem to match up with what happened. Who’s best? In those circumstances it usually isn’t your own.

  15. […] Does everything really happen for a reason? ( […]

  16. Wonderful post–thoughtful question posed. I had an army buddy who, during WWII, was looking at a map. The man to his right and the man to his left were shot and killed. He said he felt he had been spared for a reason, that there was still some purpose to fulfill. My uncle was 20 when he was killed in WWII, before having children or living his life or fulfilling his purpose. Was his life worth less than my friend’s? I don’t think so. But I think it is how people soothe themselves when they are afraid, and need to convince themselves that some greater power is looking out for them.

    • Elliot says:

      Thanks for the comments. As discussed in the post, it doesn’t make sense does it? To some it explains those random events (e.g. not being the one killed), of events seemingly out of their control. But it doesn’t really. There could for example, have been many reasons why your army buddy was spared, for example, he was in a harder place to be hit. If nothing else whilst I don’t agree with “the greater plan” those sort of events can be used / taken to inspire.

  17. I’m with you on this. It’s an inane phrase. And congratulations on a one year anniversary.

  18. […] Does everything really happen for a reason? ( […]

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