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

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When times are tough, people are quick to dispense feel-good clichés like “every cloud has a silver lining” or “everything happens for a reason.” For some people, it’s a matter of faith that the universe is inherently reasonable, whether it’s through the action of destiny or God’s will. “I know it’s bad now,” they’ll say, “but take comfort, because everything happens for a reason.”

I object, but 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 can! I object because “everything happens for a reason” asserts as a universal truth one possible conclusion of a very human, personal process that often requires effort, and not just blind faith, to reach. Moreover, thanks to this conventional wisdom, sometimes people settle on the first “reason” that occurs to them, even if it isn’t good for them because, well, how many reasons can there be? This kind of passive, deterministic, dead-end thinking can hold you back from making the deepest kind of meaning in your life.

Assembling meaning from pieces

Meaning—that’s what we’re really talking about when we say that there is a reason for things. But meaning isn’t an objective fact; it's a subjective construct that is created in your mind. When you make sense of a negative event and then find benefit in it, you have made meaning. Often, the sense and benefit aren’t apparent from where you are, but only in hindsight.

You could imagine that you’re hiking up a trail. As you go along, you’re aware of your immediate surroundings, and if it’s a steep trail, your attention might be further narrowed to the slope, your physical exertion, and each laborious footfall.

You might be able to locate yourself on a map, but it’s only from the top of the hill that you can turn around and, with the perspective afforded by distance, elevation, and your immersion in your environment, orient yourself more directly and completely. You can see the steep section in context. You also have a different perspective about the trail ahead than you did when you were blinking through sweat and staring at your feet.

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The factual data of the events of your life are much less important than the way you relate to them psychologically and then respond to them. Your brain has a process for making meaning from events that includes functions of your memory, cognition, and emotion. It pieces together certain events from your past that tell a story of how the world works and your role in it; who you are. This is your narrative identity, which I've discussed elsewhere.

Your brain also has an idea of how the future should unfold in order for you to meet your goals and to have your values and ideas about the world upheld. Your sense of identity and these schemas then influence how you interpret subsequent events. To the extent something happens that doesn’t fit into the existing program, you feel distress, and the less it fits, the more distress you feel.

Then, your brain will try to make things fit, with or without your conscious choice or effort. When you find yourself replaying a distressing event over and over in your mind, this is your brain hard at work trying to resolve the discrepancy: trying to figure out why something happened and its significance for your life.

Finding the significance—making the meaning—can either be accomplished by interpreting the event in a way that more closely matches your existing worldview, or changing your worldview to accommodate the new information.

When people say “everything happens for a reason,” I think they’re usually talking about the latter. How this unexpected development, which threatens to derail you now, will ultimately lead you to a new understanding of yourself and the world, even if it’s not visible now.

Indeed, the ultimate meaning of the event can’t be visible now, because you’re still on your way up the trail, preoccupied, myopic, and blinded by sweat, and maybe tears. Your future understanding lies further ahead along a trail of time and more events.

One thing leads to another

However, neither current nor future events just “happen.” Every event is the consequence of something that came before. I’m not talking metaphysics here, just cause and effect. You, other people, and your environment influence each other, and those influences combine to produce outcomes. If your home is devastated by a hurricane, that event is the outcome of natural climatic processes coupled with your choice to live where you do.

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If you were fired from your job, the factors that led to that consequence could include unwise decisions you made, like staying out too late the night before and showing up late for work one too many times.

However, your boss also arrived at that moment through the operation of causes and effects unique to her. Perhaps the day she fired you, your boss wasn’t well rested either, and had an especially low tolerance for your tardiness.

The causes of a negative event can be figured out and, in that way, help you make some sense of it, but that won’t help you find benefit in it. That requires some time and effort.

Bad times are like new neighbors appearing at your doorstep. You can pretend you’re not home, so you don’t have to face the possibility that you won't like them as much as your former neighbors, or you can invite them in for a cup of coffee and get to know them. Either way, they'll be living next door.

Regardless of how actively involved you were in giving rise to them, bad times can ring your doorbell at any time. Once they do, you're in the spotlight whether you like it or not, and everything you do, or don’t do, thereafter will have consequences.

Taking the driver’s seat

When you don’t take an active role in the integration of negative events into your worldview and sense of self, you’re rolling the dice a bit. You might tumble back down the hill.

Your brain might decide to repress the event in some way because it’s too painful to bear, which, while providing relief, also robs you of the intimate contact you need with the experience in order to give it meaning.

It might also take the event as evidence that you will never win, that you don’t deserve good things to happen to you, or any of the various self-defeating interpretations that people are prone to make, because we can be pretty hard on ourselves

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When I think of resilience and the willingness to face tragedy head-on, the first person that comes to mind is John Walsh, whose six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted and gruesomely murdered in 1981. This is the kind of event that can destroy a person.

Instead, John launched and hosted America’s Most Wanted, which was directly responsible for the apprehension of over 1,000 fugitives during its run—arguably the most productive and socially conscious use of prime time television ever. He also founded a nonprofit organization to lobby for legislative reform for abducted children, and continues to testify before Congress on the issues of missing children and victims’ rights. 

John Walsh faced his son’s death and invited it deep inside, where he metabolized it into meaning and inspiration. It meant completely reappraising his worldview and identity, to a degree that not everyone would have been willing to undertake. Then he applied effort to nurture the meaning he’d made.

Now, I am sure that he would give anything to travel back in time to prevent his son’s death. But I'd also be willing to bet that he feels a far deeper sense of meaning and purpose than he did as a hotel developer. Does this mean that even a child’s murder happens for a reason? Only when someone gives it one.

Your orientation is everything

If “everything happens for a reason” has a sister cliché, it’s “every cloud has a silver lining.” This one apparently derives from Milton’s mention of a particular lemons-to-lemonade experience in a verse from 1634, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that it started appearing as a popular expression generalized to include all unfortunate events. 

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

Since you have no control over the position of clouds or celestial bodies, whether it appears to have a silver lining has everything to do with how you’ve oriented yourself and the direction you’re looking. It’s only when all three are aligned—the light, the cloud, and you—that you’ll find the meaning and otherwise, it’s just a cloudy sky.

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In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl posits that to the extent life has meaning at all, and inasmuch as painful events are an inevitable part of life, then even our suffering must have meaning.

He would know. He was a psychiatrist before he was sent to Auschwitz, where he struggled to maintain a grip on his most deeply-held values.

Through his suffering, he gained insight into some of the deepest questions about what it means to be a human being. He found meaning in the unlikeliest place and then used it as fuel to help others do the same through his writing and the development of his own model of psychotherapy. 

My own 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. Problems that, if I were more metaphysically-oriented, I’d swear the universe delivered to me just to test my commitment to the principles I know to be true—which themselves were borne of past encounters with difficult events and people. 

But they aren’t being delivered to me. I’m the one choosing to metabolize the difficult times and how to interpret and respond to them. I take them as an opportunity to learn what I can and to test the validity of approaching the world with as open a heart as I can muster.

Then I challenge myself to take just . . . one . . . more . . . step up the trail—the direction aligned with my best determination of who I really am at my core—so I can see what new meaning will emerge.

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I don’t know if my own proclivities in this regard have more to do with hard-earned faith in my path, or the terror of what I know lies back down the hill. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

What matters when things go wrong is that you make some effort to create meaning and pick your next step consciously, and whatever motivation you need to do that is just fine.

A persistent orientation in the direction of your most genuine self, even if it seems to cost you in the short run, will lead to places you never would have foreseen while you were preoccupied with the blows you were dealt. Later, you’ll see all kinds of connections between the worst events of your life and the best ones. Yours will be a story of redemption

When a difficult event shows up, invite it in. Turn toward the pain. Make meaning. Take the most difficult next step available. Do those things enough times, and “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, for you anyway, because you made it so, and will again.

How have you found meaning in difficult times? Please share your thoughts in the comments!