I was sitting with a family after a particularly terrible set of events that everyone was struggling with. Neighbours and friends were dropping by, some to drop off food; some to sit and cry a bit; some to stand silently in the kitchen because they didn’t know what to say or do. A few of the visitors did make a some halting comments, mostly expressing sorrow and offering whatever support was needed. Before too long, the expected happened–or at least what I expected would happen at some point.
One of the visitors, seeking to bring some hope into the darkness of the situation, begins to talk and utters a comment that takes many forms but can be reduced to something like, “Everything happens for a reason”. It almost inevitable that someone will say something like this at some point in the process. There is no rhyme or reason as to who will say it or when it will be said. It comes from religious and non-religious alike, male and female, young and old–the only thing predictable is that someone will say it at some point.
This comment and its various siblings is somehow supposed to put the whole process in a new perspective, making everyone feel better and lightening the darkness that has settled in because of whatever trauma or tragedy. It will be greeted with thoughtful nods from some, confused silence from others and denial from me–always mentally and occasionally, in the right circumstances, a verbal denial.
This comment in all its related versions comes from a very structured and ordered view of life. In Christian contexts, it is called “predestination”. Philosophers prefer to discuss it under the name “determinism”. Whatever the term, it points to a context where everything is planned and determined long before it happens, either by God or some scientific view of causation.
And in some ways, the comment and its cognates is right–everything does have a reason behind it. Some reasons are clear and direct–if I eat everything I want to eat and don’t exercise, I will gain weight. Some reasons are unclear and indirect–if I end up getting cancer, there is a scientific reason but I may or may not ever discover the reason.
But often, when this comment is made, it presupposes that the reasons behind things are benevolent and positive and that understanding this can help us overcome the pain and difficulty of the situation by first of all remembering that there is a reason and then looking for the benevolent reason behind the events that will somehow enable us to understand and accept and move on.
Well, I have enough scientific understanding to accept the statement on some levels. Everything that happens does have a reason. But often, those reasons are neither benevolent nor malevolent, they just are. The rules and regulations of nature simply exist and operate without judgement or long term meaning and purpose.
And that means that when stuff happens, the reasons are often impersonal, indifferent and even irrelevant to the way we deal with stuff. When a family is mourning the loss of a member in a car accident, knowing that inflexible rules of nature meant that driving too fast on slippery roads after too much drinking made a crash almost inevitable doesn’t bring much comfort. In fact, it can cause more hurt and pain as the impersonal nature of the actual reasons permeates the situation.
Certainly, many people in tragic situations are looking for reasons and purpose and meaning that can help them deal with whatever they are facing. Unfortunately, reason and purpose and meaning that actually help often can’t be found. Life can be really impersonal and tragedy really doesn’t come with a reasonable explanation that makes it all better. There probably is a “why” when looking at life’s stuff but knowing the why probably doesn’t do what the people who love to comment on everything having a reason want it to do.
At best, it is a neutral statement that simply says something that is both obvious and somewhat worthless to say–and at its worst, it seeks to cause people to hide their real feelings and pretend that there is a reasonableness to tragedy that really doesn’t exist. It is one of those statements that people would like to think is profound but which in the end doesn’t really do much for anyone. There are things to say and do in tragedy that actually help–but pointing out that there are reasons for it really don’t help.
May the peace of God be with you.