“We are neither our point of origin nor our goal; the former is long gone, the latter forever recedes as we move forward. We are the journey itself…The great rhythm of gain and loss is outside of our control; what remains within our control is the attitude of willingness to find in even the bitterest losses what remains to be lived.” James Hollis, Ph.D.
Every now and then, a debate goes around the Internet discussions about how people respond to the losses of others, centering on the tendency of people to say to sufferers that their loss or challenge must have, “happened for a reason,” or that they must have been able to “learn so much from it.” I’m sure we’ve all heard this to varying degrees, whether in a discussion about the loss of a death, the fact that our boyfriend broke up with us, or that someone cut in front of us in line.
The posts that I read were expressing their anger at the use of, “It happened for a reason,” as a pat response to those who have experienced a difficult event. They argued it is both a simplistic and unhelpful response because at a time when people really could use just a hug or a, “What can I do?” they were having to face this existential statement: a statement that could be seen as either subtly blaming (you brought this on yourself) or presumptuous (you better get cracking on finding the meaning.)
While I understand the anger – we’ve all had thoughtless things said to us – maybe we can also be understanding. A lot of the things that people say at these times are out of fear or uncertainty. Perhaps they are trying to bury their suspicion that life is unpredictable by asserting that there must be reason and logic. Life is unpredictable, of course – to deny that is to deny life – but this can be hard knowledge to carry around, so people tend to live in platitudes.
I’ve had a life that’s been both ordinary and extraordinary, with what felt – at times – like more than my fair share of drama, trauma, and loss, and I’ve done a fair bit of thinking about all of it over time. There is a smidgen of truth in saying that everything happens for a reason. Of course things happen for a reason – the reason being that you’re alive, and every moment of your life was leading you to this moment, and the one after that! Of course those moments are sometimes hard or terrifying or devastating and sometimes they’re blissful and abundant and just what we need when we need it. But they don’t happen because we were bad or we’re strong enough to handle it or we need to learn something – they just are.
The worst thing that’s ever happened to me – my illness – could be considered both random – an overblown and painful reaction by my immune system to a perceived threat, and reasoned – in that I could make a really good argument for the emotional neglect and/or religious abuse perpetrated by my parents combined with biochemical stressors and an overabundance of cortisol and adrenal exhaustion due to constant fight-or-flight tendencies as a child. (Whew!) It was either going to happen or it wasn’t.
Tragedy is just that, events are just our lives unfolding. Life is an immensely complex situation: it is simply impossible to know whether an event is good or bad because it is impossible – at the time – to know long-term consequences or series of events. Myself, I don’t care for the thought that everything has to happen for a reason. I have often found that things happened at the right time; when I was either ready or willing to give something new a shot. And sometimes it feels like things happen in order to get me to do something, to get me going in a process, which I might have been reluctant to undertake.
I have found it helpful to find meaning behind the things that happened to me. Viktor Frankl (the boss of living through bad things) theorized that the search for meaning is a primary human motivation that enables individuals to retain hope in the face of adversity. I’m with Frankl (and Hollis above). I have devoted a great deal of energy both to finding what remains for me to live and to self-exploration and to sharing my findings – as an effort to understand my life, move forward in a more healthy way, and maybe help others. (Will my story help anyone else; will being part of a research study help with drug development; if I find a thing that helps a lot, can I share that with anyone?)
I don’t think that Dad’s illness or my having to care for him happened for a reason, but good things have come out of it, including a better relationship with him, and increased compassion for, and a desire to help, others. I’m not happy about my illness, but it has caused me to do more exploration of my past, my motives, and my patterns. Finding the good, what it is that remains, small as it may be, has been the thing that helps keep me going.
To all those who are tempted to try to comfort a grieving person with simplistic comments, thank you for your kind impulses, but perhaps you could go a little deeper. Perhaps you could take a moment and think about the losses – big or small – you’ve had in your own life and whether saying, “It must have happened for a reason,” would have helped you. Find out what your friend needs now and do that – leave the greater existential questions for another time.
And to those going through a difficult time – I’m so sorry – and, of course, you shouldn’t be expected to spend time or energy understanding and/or educating others on bereavement etiquette or existential expectations, but it might give you something to think about while ignoring those people. Then, when you’re ready, perhaps you could emulate Hollis and embark on your own search for what will make your life worth living now, not reasons for why things happened. Because what happens to us might be outside of all control, logic, and a reason why, but what we do with what happens to us might give us a reason to go on.