What Do People Really Mean When They Say… “Everything Happens for a Reason…”

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Everything happens for a reason, I’ve pretty much lived my whole life believing that to be true. Alas, one generally doesn’t think about such things or hear those words except when things have gone horribly wrong and one is trying to figure out where it all went to hell. It’s probably part of my optimistic American upbringing to respond to difficulty, set-backs and failure with the notion that there’s something to be learned from said difficulty, set-backs and failure such that I entertain the belief that “I’ll do better next time.” That would seem to be the American Ideal, to overcome adversity and remain optimistic through the tough times.

It also probably comes from the deeply instilled belief that there’s a God in-charge of this whole thing and, to quote the evangelists, “He’s got a plan for your life!” Can I hear an Amen?! No? My early Catholic upbringing actually wasn’t that optimistic, more wanting us little believers to remember God as being the Eye-in-the-Sky, making note of every sin and shortcoming. Fortunately, I encountered Hippy Jesus when I was fifteen and learned,

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6: 31-34 NIV

Cool. He’s got it all covered. My guess is that most who hold to the “everything happens for a reason,” come from some belief that the Big Guy in the Sky is working behind the scenes to make it so. One would assume that the opposite of this belief is that no one is in-charge and that everything is random and meaningless. One simply needs to look at the angst and despair expressed by the early Atheist writers and philosophers to see that this is true. No God, no meaningful existence or happy ending. Yikes. Talk about un-American.

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Where my train left the track was the next thought: if everything happens for a reason (because the Bible told me so) then there must be one path that my life is supposed to take and I need to make sure that I’m on that path. Yeah, I actually believed that to be true. We’ve just gone from getting a general sense of comfort because this journey through life has been vetted by a very powerful person to “I have to know the mind of God and what he wants me to do so that I can do it.” No pressure, just brought on the Creator of the Universe to oversee this little project I call “My Life.” Oh yeah, and he’s also fond of parables and riddles and turning things on their heads (you know, “the first shall be last” and “the meek will inherit the earth” and all that). I spent a good fifteen or maybe twenty-years trying to untie that knot. After a while I felt like, maybe there is a plan, I have no way of knowing what the hell it is (that must be where the early Atheists found their source of despair and hopelessness). Yeah, who wants any of that?

Then I realized that I was looking in the wrong direction. You can’t see the plan looking forward. You only realize what it is or might be looking backwards. I turn to the late Steve Jobs, who said it best in his 2005 Stanford commencement address, when talking about his own curtailed college experience:

“… it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very very clear looking backwards, ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

I think people say that “everything happens for a reason” because they either believe that there is someone in charge or because to admit otherwise would be to admit that our lives are meaningless. And most of us cannot live very long or with any quality of life with that kind of existential angst hanging over oneself day and night. A third option is that we make our own meaning and it’s not dependent on some cosmic plan as much as our own meaningful connections to those around us and the good that we can do while we’re here.

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Video resource: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, retrieved from: http://youtu.be/UF8uR6Z6KLc

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