I’m not sure when I started noticing this turn of phrase. But I think it was during one of our Project Runway marathons. When designers lose a challenge and get kicked off the show, roughly half of them say something along these lines:
“Obviously I’m disappointed… but I think everything happens for a reason.”
And it’s driving me nuts. Not just when I’m watching Project Runway… but all the time. Whether it’s presented in conventional theistic terms — God has a plan for us all — or in more vague, woo terms — X happened because it was meant to happen, it happened to teach me a lesson, I guess the universe is trying to tell me something — it still drives me nuts. (I think it drives me especially nuts because I used to believe it myself, and I’m always more irritated with irrational beliefs that I used to hold myself.)
I mean, in the most literal sense of the words, of course everything happens for a reason — if by “for a reason” you mean “as a result of cause and effect.” Earthquakes happen because of shifting plates in the earth; I got pneumonia because I got bacteria in my lungs at a time when I was physically vulnerable; designers get kicked off Project Runway because the judges don’t like their designs. And since every effect has its own cause, you can trace that chain of cause and effect almost as far back as you like, until you run out of either knowledge or patience.
But that’s clearly not what people mean when they say that everything happens for a reason. They mean that everything happens for a purpose. They mean that everything that happens has intention behind it. They mean that earthquakes and illnesses and getting kicked off reality shows are part of a plan, either a conscious plan of God or an unconscious plan of some vague Fate or World-Soul or Universe… a plan to teach us lessons, or to point our lives in new and fruitful directions, or to give us things we need and don’t find it easy to accept.
And it bugs me.
It bugs me for the obvious reason: I think it’s mistaken, and I think it’s a mistaken idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason, simply because it is mistaken.
But it also bugs me because I think it hinders the learning process. It gets in the way of learning from your mistakes. It’s not like every bad thing that happens to you is a result of your mistakes, of course. But if you think that every bad thing that happens to you happens because it serves some larger purpose, how are you going to figure out which bad things are things you could have avoided, and could avoid in the future? How are you going to have a clear perspective on which parts of your life are things that you caused, which are things that other people caused, and which are just accidents that nobody could have any control over?
And it’s so unnecessary. I understand that “Everything happens for a reason” is often a way of saying, “This happened so I could learn from it.” But it’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, without believing that someone or something made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson. In fact, it’s not just possible — it’s easier. What with the clearer perspective on cause and effect, and all.
More on all that in a bit. I think there are a few basic processes driving this kind of thinking, and I want to take a quick look at them all so I can take them apart.
1. False perception of intention. The human mind has evolved — for very good evolutionary reasons — to see intention, even when no intention exists. Michael Shermer talks about this in How We Believe. Example: When shown triangles moving about on a screen, people tend to describe the action as the triangles “chasing” each other or otherwise acting with intention… when in fact the pattern was completely random.
2. Rationalization. Saying that “everything happens for a reason” can be a great way to evade responsibility when the “everything” that happened is, in fact, your fault. “Yes, I didn’t study and I flunked chemistry and now I can’t go to medical school… but everything happens for a reason. I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school. I guess I was meant to repair VWs and grow marijuana.”
4. Wanting to find meaning. This one I have more sympathy with than any of the others (although I actually have at least some sympathy with all of them). Believing that everything happens for a reason is a way to make the lousy things that happen in your life feel like they have some meaning. If you can convince yourself that there’s some Greater Purpose to getting laid off and your car breaking down… well, some people find that more comforting than thinking that Sometimes Shit Happens, with no purpose or function. (I sure don’t, but that’s another post.)
So let’s take a look at these.
1. False perception of intention. Not sure what else I have to say about this. Again, the human mind has evolved to see intention even when none exists. If we see our lives as shaped by some external guide, when that guide doesn’t really exist, it skews our ability to see how we affected the situation ourselves… and what we might do in the future to make things turn out differently.
2. Rationalization. I get that we all rationalize our mistakes and failures. And I even get that rationalization is psychologically necessary, to let us make decisions and live with them and not have dark nights of the soul every night. I just think that “Everything happens for a reason” is a particularly pernicious rationalization, one that mucks up the learning process and creates a passive approach to life. Try some other rationalizations instead. “I was having a bad day,” “I didn’t understand the instructions,” “I guess you can’t please everybody”… these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone’s brilliant master plan.
3. Saving face. Again, I get it. You flunk out of chemistry or get kicked off Project Runway; you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends and family and millions of strangers. But again, there are better ways to save face than the “Everything happens for a reason” trope — ways that don’t encourage passivity and get in the way of learning from mistakes. The losing “Project Runway” designers who didn’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” had some excellent ones. “I’m sorry I lost, but I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t have done it differently.” “This week’s challenge was hard for me, and I didn’t do my best work — I’m just sorry I didn’t get a chance to show the world what a great designer I am.” And my personal favorite: “I learned a lot from this experience, and I’m going to come out of it a better designer.”
4. Wanting to find meaning. And again, I get it. Mistakes and failures and pain… well, they suck. Believing that they have meaning can help make them suck less. But I think there are far, far better ways to get meaning from your mistakes than, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, and to weave them into the meaning of our lives, without believing that someone or something outside of us made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson.
It seems to me that the “Everything happens for a reason” philosophy is kind of a passive one. It’s a philosophy that sees the plan for your life — and the meaning of that life — as belonging to someone other than yourself. It’s a philosophy that looks out in the world for signs and clues about what you should be doing, instead of looking at yourself and your own life.
And it’s a way of avoiding responsibility — not just the obvious responsibility for your mistakes, but responsibility for the desires you have and the choices you make. Saying, “I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school” means you don’t have to say, “I guess I don’t actually want to go to medical school,” or, “I guess I screwed up my chances of going to medical school.”
Or, for that matter, “I guess if I want to go to medical school, then I need to make some serious changes.”
I remember this vividly from my own woo days. The number of times that I said to myself. “I guess I was meant to do X,” or, “I guess I wasn’t meant to do Y”… it’s embarrassing to think of it now. I was meant to live in San Francisco, and to work for On Our Backs; I wasn’t meant to stay in my first marriage, or to go to nursing school.
It would have been a lot more honest for me to say, “I guess I really want to do X,” or, “I guess I really don’t want to do Y.” But it was so much easier to interpret the successes and failures of my life, and the happy and unhappy accidents, as signs and symbols from a benevolent spirit guiding me to my path, then it was to think of them as my own damn choices intersecting with random chance. The benevolent guiding spirit of the universe seemed so much kinder and more thoughtful than the indifference and stupidity of random chance; and it seemed about a thousand times smarter and wiser than I knew myself to be. It was a belief that let me avoid taking responsibility for my choices and desires — and the ways that they shaped my circumstances and opportunities — without feeling like a piece of paper being blown about by the wind.
But I can’t believe it any more. The evidence just doesn’t support it. And letting go of that belief has made me both more responsible and more accepting. It’s like the atheist version of the Serenity prayer. Letting go of thinking that everything happens for a reason has helped me have more courage to change things that I can, more serenity to accept things that I can’t, and more wisdom to know the difference.