Pet Peeve #39: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Disclaimer: This entry is about beliefs and belief systems. If your beliefs are different than mine, I completely respect that and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. Let’s just talk.

I’ve heard the phrase “everything happens for a reason” thousands of times. From strangers on Match.com to friends and family, it’s a very common phrase, and I don’t doubt that people believe it. We’re human. We want to feel like our lives have meaning, that we are part of something bigger than themselves.

I personally believe that we most certainly are part of something much bigger than ourselves–something so much bigger, in fact, that everything in our lives does not actually happen for a reason. Good things, bad things, little things, big things. Things happen, and we give them reason.

I don’t think this is a black and white rule–in fact, it’s mostly a fuzzy gray area. I think some things do actually happen for a reason. But we have absolutely no idea what those things are.

Why is this important for me to share? For that matter, why is it a pet peeve of mine? Because I think there are times when it’s a hurtful, dishonest thing to say or think, and there are other times, some of them life-defining moments, when personal responsibility is extremely important. Some examples of the two:

  1. When a child falls down and scrapes his knee, did that happen for a reason? When a child gets cancer, is that for a reason? What about an adult? When you’re playing a videogame and you achieve a high score, is that for a greater reason? What about reading this blog entry? Is there a reason for that? My point is that “everything” is a huge, all-encompassing word. Think about it on a cellular or molecular level. Think about how many “things” happen every second, every millisecond. Do you truly believe that every one of those things happens for a reason? I believe in God, and I believe in reason, but I don’t believe that every single little thing happens for a reason. I believe that when a child scrapes his knee, God didn’t push him down to teach him a lesson. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe in a God that’s much bigger than a schoolyard bully.
  2. When you succeed at something, does that just “happen” out of thin air, or was the reason that you worked hard at it and you persevered and you deserve it? And when you fail at something, does that just “happen,” or did you personally come up short? There is great strength in admitting that you don’t have complete control over your life, because you don’t. You could get hit by a car tomorrow and there’s a 97% chance that you couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. But that 3% matters. Take responsibility for that 3% and make the world what you want it to be. The world is not out to get you.

I believe that everything does not happen for a reason. Rather, I believe that some things happen for a reason. What do you believe?


16 Responses to “Pet Peeve #39: “Everything Happens for a Reason””

  1. Mena says:

    Ugh… Jamey. Everything does happen for a reason, but not the reason that people like to credit. There is a causal relationship to everything in life. No incident occurs without some initiating cause. One can think of it as conservation of energy or just the fact that no behavior exists in a vacuum. So, yeah, everything happens for a reason, but the way that phrase is used to explain the influence of a greater supernatural being dictating every intricate detail of existence is just a fallacy. I mean, if one chooses to believe that every insignificant occurrence is the act of a supernatural being, that is fine, but one must also accept that that is a crazy belief. Whatever lets you sleep at night though. I find it obnoxious when something terrible happens (i.e. a death, or some other terrible occurrence) and someone says, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” as though that is supposed to make things better.

    PS. Aren’t you Catholic? Shouldn’t you inherently believe that everything happens for a reason because your god has dictated all of the events of your life because s/he is omniscient? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what the Pope says. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Mena–Thanks for your comment. It does sound a little bit like the theory you describe is that “everything happens…period.”

      I, too, find it obnoxious (or perhaps I’d use the word “disappointing”) when something terrible happens and someone says that “everything happens for a reason.” I think we can learn from terrible things that happen, but that doesn’t mean that those things happened so we could learn something. That seems quite self-centered.

      I am Catholic, although I most certainly don’t automatically believe everything the Pope says just because he’s the Pope. He’s human. My understanding of the Catholic God is that God is omniscient (knows all things) but not omnipotent (controls all things).

      • Robb says:

        Your understanding of the “Catholic” god seems incorrect, unless I misunderstand loads of Bible verses and, perhaps most notably, the very first line of the Apostles’ Creed:

        “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven & earth.”

        In my church growing up, we also added “of all that is seen and unseen”, ostensibly to clear up any possible misconstrual regarding the extent of God’s dominion.

        How can one interpret the term “almighty” to mean anything but omnipotent?

        But back to the original issue:

        OF COURSE not everything happens for a reason.

        OF COURSE it is childish and mean-spirited to tell a suffering person that everything does happen for a reason, or worse yet that the all-knowing creator of the universe found it necessary.

        OF COURSE there are some things we can control and some things we cannot control.

        OF COURSE the world does not behave as if it were created, designed, planned, overseen, or guided by a supernatural deity, even if we allow for that deity to be selective and “mysterious.”

  2. Emma says:

    Personally, I think everything happens and then sometimes we try to find a reason/justification. That’s not to say that’s bad to seek one out, but I don’t think some things do and some things don’t have reasons from a greater power per se. Things just are and we can read into them when/how we choose.

    I’m sure some people do think God wanted them to win a video game, just as I think some people think the world is out to get them, and the latter is an attitude I have very little patience for.

    I think this way largely because of your second point, personal responsibility. I also believe, for instance, that if you are open to the world, you will allow people or opportunities into your life. (I’m not preaching The Secret stuff exactly, simply that if you are so closed off, you won’t notice a new friend potential or a better job possibility.)

    .

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Emma–Thanks for your comment. I tend to agree with you 99% of the time when you say, “Things just are and we can read into them when/how we choose.” I still think that some things happen for a reason, but I don’t think we know what those things are.

      I really like your take on being open to people and opportunities (and I’d add “open to different points of view”).

  3. Anne Riley says:

    Oh! This is one of my favorite things to talk about. I’ll try to keep it short!

    You know I believe in God too, so that’s where I’m going to come from here. I believe in the sovereignty of God–which is a fancy way to say that he is, ultimately, in control of everything. However, I don’t believe he is a puppetmaster, jerking the strings to make us do what he wants us to do. This sovereignty of God vs. free will of man has a delicate balance, and one that I don’t personally understand, nor will I until I am able to ask him about it face to face.

    What I think it comes down to is this: You’re totally right that he doesn’t push the kid down, but he does feel the kid’s pain, and he has the power to use it for a greater purpose if he so desires. But he does give us the will to choose our own paths–he created us that way, after all.

    Quite a nice way to live, if you ask me.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Anne–Interesting. So is God selectively sovereign? I like that you brought up free will–that plays directly into my theory.

      I ascribe to the believe that God “feels” our pain when we suffer, and perhaps there are times when God uses that pain for a greater purpose. You hear many stories about people has a horrific accident, and it wakes them up to what they feel is their life’s purpose. I think it’s great that they were able to find meaning in their suffering and act on it. But I applaud that person (not God) for making that choice to change their life. Which perhaps isn’t giving God enough credit. I guess all I know is that if there is a God, it’s impossible for me, one tiny little human in the sea of humanity and whatever other life is out there, to comprehend what God is. However, I can fully comprehend another tiny little human making the choice to change their life after something unfortunate happens to them.

  4. Robb says:

    Thanks, Jamey, for the thought-provoking post. Commentary like this makes me feel a measure of empathy for theists. Though, admittedly, that empathy is mixed with a bit of frustration bordering on scorn. What you wrote seems to distill down to the problem of suffering. Why does it happen? What purpose does it serve? How could God let it happen?

    In my (post-theist) opinion, this confusion sets in because we have certain expectations for how the world should operate if God is truly at the helm. A universe with a god – particularly an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent god – would logically have certain characteristics. You know, things like justice, fairness, peace, freedom from wanton suffering, etc. In other words, with a god in control, things should make sense. Everything should happen for a reason, according to some divine plan.

    This is the same sort of mental gymnastics – which is practically required when one admits the presence of suffering and evil in the world – that leads religious people to posit the existence of the Devil. After all, if you are committed to the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent being, and the world clearly does not seem to be ruled by such a perfect creator, then there needs to be some explanation for the mismatch. If you have an invisible friend whose job it is to make things right, and things are not right, then why not just create an invisible enemy? The added benefit is that now the believer is part of a godly struggle! Good vs. Evil! We like religion for the same reason we like pro wrestling (or at least why some people like pro wrestling): because it provides a theater for us to express our hope that things will be right in the world (or in the next world), and that those who are valiant will prevail over those who cheat and lie and otherwise harm others.

    Anne: you seem to recognize that your god (which I presume is a Christian god) is confusingly self-contradictory, and that you’ll only get your answers when you meet him face-to-face. While I would love to hear about how your god is an actual physical being despite being utterly undetectable, I’ll offer a simpler question: why not consider other gods? Perhaps Allah, or Krishna and Shiva, or Ahura Mazdā, or Ik Onkar, or Amman Ra, or Marduk, or Ekam, or Zeus, or Odin, or any of the other thousands of gods from our species’ past, has a better explanation for this conundrum of suffering.

    Of course, you could also consider the possibility that none exists.

    • Red says:

      Incorporation of terms like “post-theist” suggest one considers his/her beliefs after or above theism, from which determinations will be made.
      The choice to believe in any a deity is independent both of the codification of the surrounding religion and the choice of how to incorporate that belief into the actions you perform. I know, damn free will strikes again. I am at least sixth generation Irish-Catholic. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic faith. I went to Catholic schools. I believe in God the Father almighty. I do not go to mass. I am a theist, who uses free will to make decisions and act in ways that are often in contradiction with the organization’s code. There have been millions of people through history who have performed admirable and atrocious actions based on their interpretation of the same organization’s code. So you get Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindu and Spaghetti Monsterists who are amazing examples of generically positive morality, and you get rapists and murders. (I don’t actually know if a Spaghetti Monsterists has been convicted of murder).
      If it is impossible to prove the presence of a deity, I’d suggest that the belief in something is more practical and thus more logical that a belief in nothing. If there is no deity, or afterlife or rebirth of any kind, we all shake out the same. After we die we are but shadows and dust, waiting for the earth to make use of out nutrients again (ok, arguably that’s natural rebirth). But there is no consciousness, and thus no vindication for being right. But if there is anything, and you believe in nothing, you’re wrong 100% of the time. And if that anything that exists cares what you think, you’re starting eternity behind the eight ball.

      • Robb says:

        Red: the argument for faith that you’re presenting here is known as Pascal’s Wager. For just one aspect of the counter-argument, see the “Which god?” discussion above. As a side note, I find it appalling that this line of reasoning is considered respectable: your position boils down to “Well, I may be wrong, but you may be going to hell.” Do you think your belief in god justifies repeating a well-worn but completely unsupported threat of eternal damnation?

        I prefer “post-theist” to atheist, because it avoids defining oneself in opposition to another label. Consider it more or less synonymous with nontheist, rationalist, humanist, etc., if you prefer. For me, “post-theist” is most accurate: like most Americans, I was raised to be theist, though I was skeptic from early on. I suffered needlessly for years because of hateful dreck like the threat of hell that you referred to so readily. I eventually came to the conclusion that theism is philosophically, intellectually, and morally untenable. Rest assured, it was not easy to let go of god(s) and to lose the cultural and familial support that comes with accepting supernatural thinking. I understand that not everyone will see things my way, and I continue to read, converse, and think about the topic whilst keeping my mind open to new ideas and information. Moreover, I respect that some people find purpose in faith, and even though I think theists are misguided, I applaud those who follow Jamey’s adage about testing one’s own beliefs. I hope you will do the same.

        You needn’t interpret the term as self-assigned superiority, though one could argue that a person who does good out of well-considered reflection and concern for her/his fellow beings (rather than for hope of a blissful afterlife or fear of eternal punishment by an invisible deity) may indeed sit on a higher moral perch.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Robb–Thanks so much for your comment. I don’t think I’ve seen you comment before, and so it’s always nice to have a new reader!

      As I mentioned above to Mena, the God I believe in is omniscient but not omnipotent. To me, that explains the first few questions you pose. Like Anne says, maybe God suffers with us when bad things happen.

      I think it’s quite possible–if not probable–that an “omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent” God does not exist. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.

      Also, I think it’s great for religious people to consider the possibility that God doesn’t exist. It’s a healthy way to approach faith–I mean, what is faith if you haven’t considered other possibilities beyond what you’ve always been told and come to your own conclusions?

  5. Red says:

    All things do happen for a reason, or rather a series of reasons (I’m heading down Mena’s road here). All the things that have ever happened in the history of the world are the sum cause that each of us is where we are at each moment. Each decision make and action we take now, is the result of billions of things that have already happened, and will become a trigger for all things that happen in the future. (Think Butterfly Effect [not the movie!])
    In addition the the presence of the situation, there is your personal response to that situation. This is based on your personal experiences, which includes all things you have ever been told. But you have the few will, as a sentient being to make any decision and perform whatever actions you want, within the physical world. (IE, you cannot currently sprout wings and fly). As you experience life, and place value on that which you have learned, your character and decision-making processes change.
    But, assigning deep specific learning to every occurrence over time would be exhausting. And it would make the analysis for all future decisions so over complex that you’d have (what we call in my family) analysis paralysis. So much to consider, you lock up.
    So, learn from experiences, know what you value, think tough decisions through, and act with intention.

    • Red says:

      Man there’s a lot of typos in there!

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Red–Thanks for your thoughts. Again, as I said to Mena, it sounds like you ascribe to the theory that things happen, period. Things happen and then more things happen and then more things, and so on. To me that’s different than things happening for a reason.

      I really like this: “So, learn from experiences, know what you value, think tough decisions through, and act with intention.”

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