|Humanist Essay for September 2012
[Reprinted from the HSNM September 2012 Newsletter.]|
"Everything happens for a reason." How often have you heard that one? I think it's time to address this ubiquitous, mostly mindless utterance head-on.
Of course everything happens for a reason, just not in the way the saying is generally intended. Most often, someone will make this observation in reference to a negative or seemingly negative occurrence resulting in something positive that followed or will surely follow: "I didn't get the job," but, "Everything happens for a reason" - maybe there will be a better job down the road. "I didn't win the tournament," but, EHFAR, I've discovered a weakness that I can work on so I can win in the future. "My family suffered a devastating loss," (these are the ones that truly disturb me) but, EHFAR - we have been brought closer together and learned valuable lessons.
For some time now, my response to EHFAR has been this: "Well, everything happens, and because we have the minds that we have, we give it a reason." Lately though, I'm tempted to be more sharp: "You bet that happened for a reason…." You didn't get the job because your skills/connections/effort weren't as good as someone else's. You didn't win the game because the opposing player or team had practiced more, was stronger or simply luckier when it mattered. The family tragedy occurred in the manner of all events - one thing leads to another through some combination of intended and unintended actions and the results of those actions unscrolling in logical sequence. The laws of nature do not make exception. They amount to reasons, as in causes, that dictate a chain of events and their outcome.
As for the future - what transpires following the incident to which we feel compelled to ascribe "reason" in the sense that some higher power or our destiny must have intended or required that result - it is our own consciousness and free will that allow us to create meaning and positive attitudes and actions going forward. EHFAR is the rationalization humans use to make lemonade out of lemons. With this in mind, I am working on a new response to EHFAR: "If you mean that there were causes and circumstances that resulted in those unfortunate events, then I agree with you. Whether this will have meaning and usefulness for you in the future is your choice, and I'm glad you have chosen to deal with the situation constructively rather than surrender to despair."
EHFAR isn't really very comforting when the "reason" part refers to the supposed intentions of a supernatural force. A god that prefers to heap on suffering versus gently instilling enlightenment - one would think a hands-on, all-powerful, all-loving being could do that - deserves the wrath of Job, not an appreciative "EHFAR."
It is not necessary to let EHFAR and other stock platitudes go by unanswered. We can rebut them or state our own view in a way that is challenging but still respectful and kind. In doing so we may find that the old saw was spoken by rote, and the speaker is not uttering a deeply held conviction but repeating words barely considered. You could be jump-starting someone's dormant critical thinking skills and liberating them from the trap of fatalism. Or not. But if you get flak for speaking your mind about EHFAR, you can turn it back on itself and reply, "If everything happens for a reason, then this conversation is happening for a reason too. Maybe you should think about it!"