by Niall Doherty

If there’s one phrase that bugs the shit out of me, it’s this one: “Everything happens for a reason.”

You often hear this from well-intentioned people in an attempt to comfort others.

  • Oh, you failed your exams? Well, everything happens for a reason!
  • Girlfriend dumped you? Everything happens for a reason!
  • Doctor said you’ll never walk again? Cheer up, everything happens for a reason!
  • Your baby died of leukemia and your house burned down? Hey, not to worry: everything happens for a reason!

No, it doesn’t.

Saying everything happens for a reason is a form of denial. Bad shit happens sometimes, and there’s just no sugarcoating it. But some people would rather believe that the bad shit is all part of some grand cosmic plan that culminates with everyone sitting around a campfire singing kumbaya.

Sorry, it doesn’t, because there is no grand cosmic plan.

Or, if there is, it’s got to be the worst plan ever conceived. Whose idea was it to make rape and genocide and suicide bombings all part of the plan? Who penciled in the holocaust as step seventeen of this brilliant fucking scheme? Did a committee get together and vote to stop off at Chernobyl and Hiroshima and Palestine on the way to Nirvana?

"Cheer up, kid. It's all part of the plan."

“Cheer up, kid. It’s all part of the plan.”

When someone says, “everything happens for a reason,” what they’re really saying is this:

  • I’m very reluctant to feel sad or uncomfortable even for a minute, so I like to delude myself into believing that every apparent misfortune is actually a good thing in disguise. Come, won’t you be delusional, too?

This attitude is driven by a deeper belief that feelings such as sadness, anger, depression, loneliness or discomfort are somehow “wrong” and that immediate action must be taken to escape them.

Listen, no feeling is “wrong.” Every feeling is legitimate and should be processed, not suppressed or side-stepped.

That’s not to say that sitting around feeling sorry for yourself for months on end is perfectly fine. Neither is roaring obscenities at the little old lady who gave you the wrong change at the grocery store.

There’s a balance to be struck. Neither extreme is ideal. In the words of Yvon Chouinard:

There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything.” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways.” Either way, nothing happens.

Credit: Jim Benton

Credit: Jim Benton

Let’s look at a better way of handling suffering.

Handling Your Own

“You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

Let’s take the example of losing your job. And let’s say you liked that job and really needed it because you have mouths to feed and bills to pay and the odds of finding alternative employment any time soon aren’t looking too hot.

That situation sucks. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t.

You might feel angry, sad and/or depressed, and you have every right to those feelings. You don’t want them to become overwhelming and lead you to do something regrettable, but it’s fine to let yourself sit with them for a while.

Let yourself cry. Let yourself smash a plate or two. Let yourself feel resentful and useless and unworthy.

This is fine. (Just try not to be photographed doing it.)

This is fine. (Just try not to be photographed doing it.)

But while you’re doing all that, two things to keep in mind:

  1. Those feelings and emotions are only temporary.
  2. There’s always some benefit to be found in your suffering.

I’ll elaborate on that second point, because at first glance it can look a lot like, “everything happens for a reason.”

The idea here is that no matter what happens in your life, no matter what misfortune comes your way, you always have an opportunity to practice some virtue. That practice is rarely easy, but it’s always there for the taking in one form or another.

Some examples:

  • Failed your exams? Now you can practice persistence.
  • Girlfriend dumped you? Now you can practice independence.
  • Doctor said you’ll never walk again? Now you can practice patience.
  • Your baby died of leukemia and your house burned down? Now you can practice acceptance.

There’s also humility, grace, courage, temperance, accountability, discipline, understanding, creativity… the list of virtues runs long.

"Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave." - Mark Twain

“Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave.” – Mark Twain

Like I said, practicing virtues is rarely easy, especially when times are tough. But the opportunity is always there. That’s not to deny the brutal reality of whatever difficult situation you find yourself in. None of that when-life-gives-you-lemons shit.

The message here is more like, “Yeah, this sucks. And it’s probably going to hurt for a while. There’s no easy fix. But hey, whatever small benefit you can find in this situation, you might as well take it.”

Going back to the lost job example, what virtues would you get to practice in that situation? How about acceptance, creativity, fortitude, humility, frugality and industry, just to name a few.

The Suffering Of Others

What about when someone else is going through a tough time? How can you help ease their suffering?

Hint: not like this.

Hint: not like this.

Well, the first thing is to give up the idea that you’re responsible for easing their suffering.

Because you’re not.

And that’s true even if you had some hand in causing their suffering in the first place. Sure, you can and should apologize and take reasonable action to make amends, but ultimately it’s up to the other person to let go of that suffering. You can’t force them to do it.

The second thing is to listen and acknowledge, without judgement. You don’t need to offer any platitudes or solutions. Just try your best to understand and empathize.

Things you should absolutely not say include:

  • Everything happens for a reason…
  • Look on the bright side…
  • God works in mysterious ways…
  • It’s not that big a deal…

Basically, don’t say anything that belittles the other person’s experience. If a little girl drops her ice cream on the beach and starts balling her eyes out, understand that that ice cream was the most important thing in her world at that moment. You telling her that “it’s only an ice cream” doesn’t make the situation any better; it just makes you an insensitive asshole.

What phrases trigger you?

Are there any words or phrases that you hate hearing when you’re going through a tough time? What are they? Share in the comments below.