"Everything Happens for a Reason": The Fact and Fiction Behind the Cliché

Finding meaning in your setbacks

I was 10 years old when my classmates discovered that my family was homeless, living out of a car. I’d been hiding it, making up stories about where we lived, but when they saw all the pillows in the car, they knew.

I’d already been the oddball because I was from out of state and had an accent, and this didn’t help. The ridicule that would ensue over the coming months would be merciless.

I remember a teacher pulling me aside after school that day and saying, “I know it’s bad now, but take comfort, because everything happens for a reason.” His words weren’t all that helpful with the sting (but knowing I had his support was huge).

When times are tough, well-intentioned people can be quick to dispense feel-good clichés like that, or “every cloud has a silver lining.” For some people, it’s a matter of faith that, at the end of the day, the universe makes sense, whether it’s through the action of destiny or God’s will.

I object, and not because I begrudge people their beliefs about destiny or religion, or because I don’t think negative events can lead to positive outcomes. They absolutely can!

I object because, for one thing, searching for reasons and discovering silver linings—the process of meaning-making—can be very human, personal, deliberate, and rewarding, and relying on luck or blind faith alone can rob you of those rewards.

Reflecting on difficult times in life

For another thing, these sayings imply that things happen for only one reason. That can lead people to settle on the first one that occurs to them and stick with it, even if it isn’t good for them.  

Meaning isn’t an immutable fact for you to learn, though, but an opinion for you to form. It's an idea that’s created when you integrate an event into your life story; when you make sense of it in the context of your past, present, and future, and gain new perspective on yourself or the world.

Often, that perspective changes with the passage of time, so meaning-making is a living process.

Building a meaningful life from pieces

Imagine that you’re hiking up a steep trail. It’s so difficult that all you’re noticing is the slope, your pounding heart, and each laborious footfall. You’re in full contact with the difficulty you’re facing and, in fact, it seems like the difficulty is everything. Not fun.

But as you continue, you’re also gaining distance and elevation. When you arrive at the top of the hill, you’re able to turn around and see that steep section in context, as part of a longer journey. You also have a different perspective about the trail ahead than you did when you were blinking through sweat and fixated on your sore feet.

How to create a meaningful life one piece at a time

Your brain uses your memory, thoughts, and emotions to stitch together individual scenes into a complete story of how your world works, what you’re all about, and where you’re headed. (This is called your narrative identity.)

When something new comes along that doesn’t fit into the existing storyline, you feel distress, and the worse the fit, the more distress you feel.

Have you ever found yourself in bed, staring at the ceiling, replaying a distressing event over and over in your mind? That’s your brain hard at work, trying to smooth that storyline out again; trying to make sense of what’s happened and its significance for your life. (Well, that, and how to avoid more pain in the future.)

Finding the significance—making the meaning—can either be accomplished by interpreting the event in a way that helps it fit better into the existing shape of your storyline, or changing the interpretation of the storyline to accommodate the new information.  

When people say “everything happens for a reason,” I’m not sure they’re thinking about it this deeply, though! I think they’re often trying to say, “Just be patient. This thing happened, and someday it’ll make sense. More will be revealed.”

That, unfortunately, is not saying a whole lot, plus it’s passive. Perhaps dangerously passive.

Taking control of your life (story)

You see, when you don’t take an active role in integrating negative events into your story, you’re rolling the dice. Left to its own devices, your brain will end up making things fit, and it’ll take the path of least resistance. You might tumble back down the hill.

Taking control of your life and life story

Or your brain might decide to help you forget the event because it’s too painful to bear, which, while providing relief, also robs you of the ability to metabolize it and give it meaning. It becomes a shadow lurking in your subconscious, toying with your thoughts and feelings long after the setback is behind you.

Or your brain could take the event as evidence that you’ll never win, you don’t deserve good things, or any of the various self-defeating conclusions that people are prone to reach, because we're wired to be hard on ourselves.

When your car starts to skid, you don’t take your hands off the wheel. And a hands-off approach to your setbacks won’t help you find—and feel—meaning in them. That requires you to turn toward your discomfort—turn into the skid!—and invest some time and effort. And to be brave.

When I think of resilience and the willingness to embrace tragedy, the first person that comes to mind is John Walsh, a former hotel developer whose six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted and murdered in 1981.

44 Everything Happens for a Reason John Walsh.jpg

This is the kind of event that can destroy a person. Instead, John launched and hosted America’s Most Wanted, which was responsible for the apprehension of over 1,000 fugitives during its run. He also founded a nonprofit organization to lobby for legislative reform for abducted children.

John Walsh turned toward his son’s death and metabolized it into meaning and inspiration to act. It meant embracing a new identity, to a degree that many people might have found terrifying. Needless to say, I’m sure John Walsh would give anything to travel back in time to prevent his son’s death . . . and I'd also bet that his life feels more imbued with meaning and purpose than it did when he was in the hotel business.

Does this mean that even a child’s murder happens for a reason? It can, when someone works to give it one.

Looking for meaning in the darkness

If “everything happens for a reason” has a sister cliché, it’s “every cloud has a silver lining.” Everyone has probably seen the real thing at one time or another: a cloud backlit by the sun or moon with a silvery glow around the edges. But let’s think about this.

Looking for meaning in setbacks

In a sky full of clouds, only one of them could display a silver lining to you: the one that floats directly between you and the light.

Since you have no control over the position of clouds, the sun or the moon, whether you see a silver lining has everything to do with where you are and where you’re looking.

It’s only when all three are aligned—the light, the cloud, and you—that you’ll find the meaning. You have to have the intention to seek it, and back it up with action. Otherwise, it’s just a cloudy day.

In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl concludes that if life has meaning at all, then, since painful events are an inevitable part of life, even our suffering must have meaning. He would know.

44 Everything Happens for a Reason Viktor Frankl.jpg

Frankl was a psychiatrist before he was sent to Auschwitz, where he struggled to maintain a grip on his most deeply-held values—his humanity—as they were put to the most extreme of tests.

He ended up with insight into some of the deepest questions about what it means to even be human. Years later, he turned those insights into an innovative model of psychotherapy that helped countless others.

The power and responsibility of resilience

You do realize, I hope, that these two examples are about more than two individuals. John Walsh was doing fine until a psychopath changed things forever; Walsh’s response and salvation was a mission that benefitted countless others. Same thing with Viktor Frankl, except there were more psychopaths who precipitated the change in his life.

The role of other people in setbacks and resilience

It’s no coincidence, this pattern of people being involved in our downfalls, and other people sharing in the glory of our comebacks. We’re all in it together.

Take me, for instance. My problems don’t compare to Walsh’s or Frankl’s but, just like anyone else, things don’t go my way all the time, or even most of the time. I experience shocks, disappointments, random minor catastrophes, people that aren’t helpful, and people that are downright malicious.

To me, these setbacks are tests of my commitment to my principles—principles that were mainly born of encounters with difficult events and people! (For instance, those kids who ridiculed me when I was a kid, who left me with a lifelong passion for the underdog, compassion for people experiencing homelessness, and distaste for bullies.)

It’s my choice to interpret and respond to setbacks as an opportunity for personal growth, and then actually do the work. I learn what I can from them, commit to approaching the world with as open a heart as I can muster, and then challenge myself to take just . . . one . . . more . . . step up the trail so I can see what new meaning will be visible from there.

Keep going when things are difficult

Following that path led me to the work I do, which includes guiding and supporting my clients as they extract meaning and fuel for growth from their difficulties.

The benefit of my individual mission has rippled out to them, just as my clients’ efforts ripple out to benefit the people in their lives. I see this chain reaction occur every day.

None of us is hiking up our trail entirely because of ourselves, by ourselves—or for ourselves.

No matter the problem you’re facing, there are people depending on your response to it, even if they don’t know it yet. Even if they don’t know you yet. Which means that right now, you have an important choice to make. A responsibility, even, should you choose to accept it.

Choosing your own growth adventure

You could choose a hands-off approach, keep your fingers crossed, and hope that someday you feel good about what’s happened to you, and everything else that will happen to you. That might be an easier path than the alternative . . . at least at first.

The alternative is recognize that events don’t define your life and your relationships, but your response to them does.

Achieving post-traumatic growth

That means choosing to invite your setbacks in and turn toward the pain. Searching for meaning, and if it’s not visible, starting to make it.

And after you make it, running with it. Running uphill with it, choosing difficult steps over easy ones. Pausing periodically to see what new is visible about the path behind you and ahead of you.

Before long, you’ll arrive somewhere you never would have foreseen while you were preoccupied with your pain. You’ll see how closely connected the worst events of your life are to the best ones, and that the trail you’ve been following is one of redemption.

Then “everything happens for a reason” won’t be a throw-away line, a desperate hope in your darkest hour, or an article of blind faith. You’ll know it to be true because you’ve made it so.

Are you inspired to find meaning in your difficult times? Please share your thoughts in the comments! And be sure to grab my free Setback Survival Pack for simple, effective tools and exercises for your mind and body, to help you come through your situation strong, confident, and ready for what’s next!