Monday, August 8, 2011

In Which I Get Annoyingly Philosophical

"Everything happens for a reason."

I've heard this line a couple of times, as people search for something they can say that will bring me comfort in the midst of my sorrow.  I know it's hard to know what to say.  I can tell you that falling back on "Everything happens for a reason" is a big fat fail.

To be honest, I find it incredibly shocking that so many people seem to subscribe to this idea.  I wonder if they've done a Pew survey of how many Americans would say they agree with this statement--I suspect the vast majority.  In fact, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised, because before Eliza died, I was one of those people who probably would have agreed with this statement (or at least said it out loud as though I believed it) without really thinking about what it means.

Now I wonder, do the people espousing this point of view actually grasp the extensive implications of that philosophy?  I mean, I totally get the desire to organize life experiences according to a narrative that makes logical sense even if we can't understand it at the moment.  I would LOVE to believe that things happen for a reason! To think that there is some clear organization to this world, that seeing it is just outside the realm of human ability.  But someday, (I dunno, I guess like judgment day, or maybe the day after judgment day) God will just take me aside and say, "I know it really sucked that Eliza had to die, but you'll understand once I tell you the really good reason I had for arranging things this way."

I just don't believe it's going to shake out that way.  And I cannot even begin to fathom the sort of reason that even God could offer me that I would find to be a remotely acceptable excuse for her death.  She was not a sacrificial lamb, she is not a guardian angel.  She's just my baby.  And there is no reason for her not to be here with the people who love her except there was a terrible, random accident and now we're all sad about that.

It's easy to explain a near-miss, a close-shave, a narrowly-avoided accident, a remarkable survival, by attributing it to the hand of fate/God.  God must have been watching over that guy who walked away from a terrible car accident.  We hear that sort of thing all the time.

But does that mean that God just got careless or busy and that's why another car accident took out an entire family?  Or that the lack of divine intervention means that it was part of his plan for innocent people to be cut down in the prime of their lives?  Was there a "reason" for that?  It was their time?

The fact is, we devise methods to intervene and save lives all the time.  That's not thwarting a master plan.  That's being reasonable and responsible and pro-active.  Why would anyone want to believe that we are passive creatures, pawns of fate?  And yet I hear this line of thinking all the time.

It's also easy to believe that things happen for a reason when everything in your life has worked out well so far.  Before Eliza died, I was a pretty lucky girl.  Sure I had lots of angst, but my life was pretty sweet.  I might have even said I was "blessed."  I used to like to think that there was a REASON David ended up in Nevada, and a reason I was assigned to substitute at the elementary school where he worked.  I used to think there was a REASON that I was assigned to the third floor of Banks Hall my freshman year of college, where I met some of my very best friends.  It was easy to believe that the people in my life came into it for REASON.  I was supposed to move to St. Louis, meet this friend, take this job, get introduced to these people. It was all part of a greater plan.

But, no.  Good things happened to me because I was lucky.  (Until I wasn't.)  There's no plan.  The point of it all is to make the most of what you're given.  There's no reason you're luckier than someone else.  It's just how things have shaken out so far.

You see, if I believed that those good things happened for a reason, then I'd also have to believe that there is a reason that toddlers get cancer.  I'd have to say that there's some reason that a tornado would rip a child literally out of his father's arms.  There's a reason that an entire airplane full of innocent people was flown into an office building.  There must be a reason that a drunk driver plowed into a young father on his way home from work.  There's a reason that an electrical fire took the lives of two little girls.  There's a reason that Alzheimer's has made a stranger out of a beloved grandmother.

And what could that reason be?  How could anything POSSIBLY justify those tragedies?  What kind of reasonable explanation could I ever be offered that would satisfactorily explain why my baby died?

(In case you're struggling with the rhetorical questions, let me help you out with the correct answer:  There could never be a good enough reason.)

There are two distinct ideas connected to the thought that everything happens for a reason.  The first is that there is a lesson to be learned here.  Those affected by a tragedy are expected to emerge on the other side, better, wiser, more appreciative, something like that.  If your experience makes you bitter, angry, or chronically depressed, then we don't say there's a good reason for that.  We quietly think that perhaps you have not sufficiently learned your lesson. It's a medieval point of view, but we cling to it.

The second implication is the idea that life is divinely ordained and its events are entirely out of our hands.  I do not subscribe to this notion.  These are stories we tell ourselves when we're safely outside trauma and loss, or when we're trying desperately to make sense of it and random chaos is too frightening to consider.  It would be nice to feel like our lives have a clear purpose and we can sit back and wait for that plan to unfold.  Not to worry!  God is in control of everything, that it will all work out in the end!  Comforting, perhaps.  But this outlook prevents us from having to take responsibility for our failures.  It also suggests that God parents through cruelty--like abusing kids who don't want to eat their vegetables.  It sidesteps the fact that the meaning of life is what we make of it, and ignores the most essential aspect of free will, which is that God doesn't control what happens to us.

I believe that the reason we seek spiritual and human connections is because we need strength to face the random chaos of our reality--the reality that terrible things happen for no reason, and there's nothing we can do about it except to seek the grace to get through it and try to help each other.  I do not think this idea is in any way incompatible with a Christian philosophy (although I realize it's also not so far removed from the Zen Buddhist notion that life is suffering and our purpose is to help to each other through).

I believe that we make our own meaning out of any event in our lives.  Substitute teaching at an elementary school became meaningful because I met my husband there.  And we decided to stay married.  We gave that encounter meaning; it didn't have it on its own.  We're struggling to give Eliza's death meaning, to honor her by appreciating life on a day to day basis, by finding love wherever we can.

But we have to fight to make her loss meaningful.  There's no greater lesson to be learned from it.  This is not a teaching moment.  It's just a tragedy.  Life just sucks sometimes.

So I don't believe that everything happens for a reason. And I know you can't argue someone else out of their "truth," but I really don't want to have to listen to it, either.

That said, I do think there are lots of good reasons to make the most meaning you can out of every day, even when it's a struggle.  I'm still seeking pockets of happiness and trying to exist in those moments.

Here are a few of my favorites:

the sweetest pup

the unpredictable one

the hubs
it made me cry, but i loved it.
summer reading

all things grapefruit--including soda!


  1. I wrote about this terrble little saying before too...I freaking hate it! I used to believe it as well, but now I believe the people who think it's true are the people who haven't ever experienced a real tragedy. How lucky are they!

    Society just has this need to try and say something to "make things better" when there is nothing that anyone could ever say to make things better for us who have lost a child. I just wish they wouldn't offer crap phrases like "everything happens for a reason".

    You are so right, there could never be a good enough reason for us to live our lives apart from our daughters. Never, never.
    I was thinking about Eliza on Saturday, I hope your weekend was easy on you.

  2. You Go girl! I am so in tune with what you said. I used to get this snappy little phrase too when I had cancer and even now some will say that I must have learned a lot or become "better" for the cancer experience. Cheeky! No, I didn't "need" cancer for some growth experience!! Love, Pam

  3. yep. totally agree. i used to be the "everything happens of a reason-er." until this happened. and like you, i totally had to reevaluate. i think the majority of people that use that line say it because they are still under the impression that life is just, fair and orderly. and when they come across a situation that doesn't make sense (like the death of an innocent baby), instead of being uncomfortable with the thought that sometimes life makes no sense, they say this line. because to them there has GOT to be a reason, even if they don't know what it is. which leaves us, the bereaved, continuing our search for answers. it leaves us continuing to blame ourselves (obviously it must have been something we did or didn't do). it leaves us even more lost. that line does more harm than good, and i wish people would stop saying it to me as well. ((hugs))

  4. Yes, to all of this. It's one of those things I used to hear a lot. I had more patience for it after I realized that the people saying it were really trying to comfort themselves than me, that they were dealing with their own grief and/or discomfort with my grief, and this was the best they could do.

    It still sometimes makes me furious, this argument, but now it mostly makes me very sad, that this was the best some people can do.

    Grapefruit for the win!

  5. You just so eloquently articulated what I have felt for such a long time. I had tears in my eyes as I was reading this post. I have never been a believer in that phrase or that mentality. To me it's a cop out and it allows people to dismiss the bad in this world. Sometimes there are no reasons, and there is no good in a situation. Sometimes life just sucks! Thankyou for sharing your thoughts as they were just what I needed to hear.

  6. It is comforting to see that there are others who don't buy into the "everything happens for a reason" belief/theory. Thank you for presenting your thoughts in such a rational yet eloquent manner.

  7. Oh Brooke, how right you are. I too was a "everything happens..." kind of gal pre-loss. Not any more.

    But when you say: "I believe that we make our own meaning out of any event in our lives." - i feel like truer words have never been spoken. And sometimes finding that meaning is super easy (like when you substituted at your hubbys school), but other times it is next to impossible, like trying to find meaning in our loss. And so, some try to say that the meaning will become obvious later, because "everything happens for a reason", but I believe that sometimes we NEVER will know the reason or be able to find meaning for some things. I guess that has to be okay.
    Thanks for another great post Brooke.

  8. All I can really say here is: I agree with Every. Single. Word.


  9. Absolutely. I wrote about how my view on faith has changed so much since Cullen's death. I believe in God because I have to hope that there is another realm where I might someday see my little boy again, but I do not believe that God took him from me as part of a divine 'plan'. I believe He gave man free will and that simply put, he grieves alongside us in our darkest moments.
    There are many around me who live in the world of 'everything happens for a reason'. I feel sad for them.. because I truly believe that one of the most important lessons I have learned is no longer believing in a sadistic God who tortures His children for the sake of teaching lessons. That He saves one and not the other.. that one is more worthy than another. I refuse to believe that, and it is quite liberating.

  10. I blame Planet Oprah. I have seen Oprah say that to just about every guest from abuse victims shot in the face to parents who lost their children to drunk drivers to Roseanne Barr. I have my degree in religion and focused on theodicy in my work at some point in time. So I read a lot of theological and philosophical ideas about why suffering exists and if it is part of God's plan. I found the ways of making sense of evil and suffering in this world fascinating, because each philosophical idea was really one man (or woman) making sense of their own suffering. I think the most meaningful to me were those Jewish theologians making sense of the Holocaust, because there is no sense. So most of those theodocies turned into how you live after, even with anger. I'm still trying to figure that out for myself. I have a post written for about two years that I have been too chickenshit to post about the Book of Job from a babylost perspective. Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. xo

  11. I pretty much agree with everything you say and love how articulate you are, but to be honest, I think part of me is still an "everything happens for a reason-er". but not in the religious/spiritual/whatever sense. The reason Cale died? His umbilical cord was too tight to deliver blood. A shitty reason. A really random and tragic one, but a "reason" none-the-less. And even when there is no clear answer I guess I figure there is a reason - we just don't know it. I guess I'm kinda looking at it all in a somewhat scientific point of view. (I hope that doesn't come off horribly insensitive and if it does I'm truly sorry) I just will never be able to wrap my head around the Why's - why did it have to happen to Eliza? To Cale? To those families affected by natural disaster or a drunk driver?

    BUT just because I have a reason for Cale's death doesn't mean it doesn't irk me to no end to hear "everything happens for a reason" - because typically it's from someone who like you said has been pretty damn fortunate and who is saying it from a point of view I just don't have.

    On a side note - the scrambled word I have to enter for the security feature before I post this comment is "igerve" which is is incredibly ironic to me since those letters spell Grieve and it kinda looks like "i grieve".

  12. There is only one who can heal your wounds and take away your pain. Until you turn to Him, you are going to grieve.

  13. I also refuse to subscribe to the everything happens for a reason rubbish. I'm more a shit happens kind of girl. Good stuff happens to good and bad people and the bad stuff happens to them too. There is no reason for it, it just happens.

  14. I'm actually laughing at the comment above MNN's comment... WTF?

    Because obviously if you believe in God, you don't grieve? WHAT?

    Non-sensical, unlike your post, which made total sense. I was someone who thought good things came to those who wait. I believed everything happens for a reason. I believed in fate, in serendipity, I believed we had a destiny.

    But I hate what's come of it, and I hate that there are others who have many, many lessons to learn, but will keep their children, deservedly or not.

    bah. Great post, beautiful actually.

  15. "Everything happens for a reason" makes me believe that the person saying that is either 1) a fool or 2) has never had anything stupendously terrible happen to them.

  16. THANK you, Brooke, for so eloquently saying what is in my heart.

  17. Quite honestly, I have not been hit with this line of thinking. I wait for it, but no one has had the audacity to say it to my face. Now do I know it something they are thinking? Yes, but maybe they are smart enough not to say it aloud. I've heard some other crappy stuff right along with this and I would have to agree with every word. I am sticking with 'I'm sorry' it's the only thing I don't personally see anything wrong with~

  18. I have battled with trying to work through my belief/faith system and what happened to Emma for almost three years - this post really, really struck me tonight. It's everything I have been thinking in a jumbled and incoherent manner made articulate. It helped so much. Thank you.

  19. Thank you for this wonderful article, friend. "Everything happens for a reason" is terrible philosophy and even worse theology. There is nothing Christian (or any healthy understanding of the other great religions of the world for that matter) about a God that hurts you to teach you. That's an abusive understanding of faith and God. I'm thankful that you are wise enough to see that, but so so sorry that people have been so thoughtless in their words to you.

  20. I second what the very wise minister above me said. Isn't it funny that a blog soooo deeply rooted in your deep thought about God can be overlooked by offering the same comment about which you've been thinking?? Geez. Love you, friend.

  21. Yes, yes, yes. I always said that if there WAS a reason (& I don't really believe there is any reason that would be "good" enough), the Guy Upstairs & I would be having a very LONG discussion about it someday.

  22. I have shockingly similar beliefs about God and all reason. This disaster of it all working out in the end and just trusting that God will make it happen isn't entirely false, imo, but definitely interpreted falsely. We're given freewill and choices in life. Our life pans out according to such choices.

    It reminds me of those "religious" bastards that petition at soldiers' funerals. They assume God punished them by killing them and it was his just will. What kind of inconsiderate and idiotic nonsense is that? To celebrate the death of another is inhumane.

    Everything only happens for a reason to those who haven't had their world rocked to the core enough to rethink their philosophy.

    I'll live the rest of my life thinking that, just as you said, life just sucks sometimes. There are meaningful times and there are times of great heartache and despair. We have freewill and choice in our lives and God is not punishing us by killing our babies.

    People want answers. It's human, I assume, to desire answers to questions that plague us-- hence the whole EHFAR garbage. Without answers, we feel void of understanding and processing. Sometimes life is just vague and we just have to take it one day at a time and stop attributing every damn thing to a philosophy that has no proof or positive impact on those who suffer mercilessly.

  23. Also, I'm infuriated by the anonymous poster who said that you must turn to God otherwise you won't stop grieving. If God kills people, I'm out. But I know he doesn't.

    I DON'T want to stop grieving my son. He was given to me and taken from me, but it doesn't mean I don't have faith or believe in God.

    He was a gift I don't believe God wants me to forget. And in remembering, I grieve.


    Also, I want Angie to write about her Book of Job connection to baby loss. But I am scared to read it.

    And... since I am already commenting SO late and all, I might as well throw out one more thought on this whole topic. I think it's sexy to people. This whole fate and destiny and life fitting together like a perfect little puzzle of hope and happiness. Sometimes there are holes in that puzzle and it's not always so glam. It doesn't mean those great times aren't still great or we shouldn't be thankful for the wonders and creation and excitement that is life. It just means that sometimes. life. blows.

  24. Great post and great discussion. I come at this from a Christian perspective and one of the best resources for me in reconciling the 'how can such things happen if God exists' was the book 'When bad things happen to good people' by Rabbi Kushner. Although I don't remember it in detail now, I believe it played a part in my belief that evil exists in the world, and even the innocent suffer the consequences of that (ie. more infertility due to more pollution, perhaps). Free will allows us all to make choices and some make choices that injure thousands of fellow human beings.

    Science explains so much of how the universe works, including earth science, weather, biology etc. But there is a percentage of people who suffer from these natural processes - we are not protected from it. Sometimes it is the random, being on the bad side of the odds. I do not believe there is a reason for it. I do believe that God grieves with us and is there to help us through; I do believe this is not the end and the only reality. But I don't believe some people deserve it, or you will happier one day because you will realize how it benefits you, or any other such thing.

    I also hope that angie will publish her book of job connection ....