I’ve come back around to this topic recently while watching misguided attempts to console friends who have run into misfortune. These awkward and ham-handed efforts flashed me back to things that were said to me over the years since I was hit. The biggest one, the most annoying one to me, is “Everything happens for a reason.” Any student of physics knows that’s true, that cause and effect are inextricably linked, but when applied as cosmological theory, it implies that everything happens for a Reason, capital R, engineered by a cosmic chess master, and you’re supposed to embrace every misfortune that comes along as some sort of divine lesson. Bugger that.
My spiritual locus of control is more human-centered, meaning that people have agency, they’re not controlled by a dramatic director in the sky. This is not to refute the existence of a God or supreme being, it just means that if such a supreme entity exists, It gave us free will. I could go out and commit a mass shooting (in theory only; I’m phobic of guns and would never touch one, much less hurt anyone), and no divine hand is going to pick out my victims based on what lessons the people in their lives need to learn. To suggest this is offensive. But that’s just what the families of the children who survived the Oklahoma City bombing did; they suggested that their children were spared for a Reason, oblivious to what that implied for the families with children who were killed.
The problem with this platitude is that it’s about the sayer, not the person it’s being said to. It’s a projection of the sayer’s cosmology onto someone who may or may not think similarly. I, for one, reject the notion of the universe as a cosmic school for souls. If our lives are all so perfectly braided that we are all where we need to be, with whom we need to be, and there are no accidents, then what is my consciousness even for? I’m nothing but a game piece. I believe in free will and the potential for others to affect us in ways that are not cosmic lessons delivered by a divine hand. When someone says to me, dripping with new-age wisdom, “Everything happens for a reason,” it lands very badly, no matter what the intent. Most of us know better than to say “He’s in a better place” to a bereaved person whose religion you don’t know; why is the “reason” platitude so persistent?
Even if the hurting person does agree with you, it can still be a damaging thing to say. A friend of mine was recently turned down for a job she dearly wanted. She had a vision of how her life would be if she got the job, she had a cherished idea of what sort of difference she would be able to make in the world, what sort of gifts she’d be able to bring forward by doing the job. The idea that the opportunity wasn’t for her and something better is waiting may be true, but suggesting that while the pain of rejection was still fresh did not help her, it only refuted her grief. Whether or not people meant it that way, it came off as “Quit that crying, this was meant to be, so buck up and don’t inconvenience us with your pointless sorrow.” My friend needed to grieve the lost opportunity, not be rushed through those feelings.
The same is true when someone is ill or injured. Shortly after I got back on my bike, almost a year after being hit, I rode to a shop owned by a friend. We were chatting about how it felt to ride downtown again, and my friend chirped brightly, “What are some of the good things that have come of your accident?” I faltered with an attempted answer, then stopped abruptly. If I’d been a cat, my tail would have been in full bottle-brush mode. I ranted, “You know what? I didn’t get to skip straight to the puppies and rainbows, and neither do you. You don’t get to hear how this made me a better person without listening to the ugly stuff. Being my friend means seeing me, not reducing me to a page in a Chicken Soup book.”
It’s natural to want to try to help, to fix things. But “everything happens for a reason” never lands right. The kindest thing you can do is bear witness, really see the person’s hurt and be there with it. Just shut up and hold out your hand. If you’re not physically there, a heartfelt “I’m sorry you’re hurting” will do.
The greeting card I used in my graphic is from my sister, who knows even better than I do how unhelpful platitudes can be. She sent it on the anniversary of my being hit. I laughed at the card because of the shared pain in that greeting, and her greater wisdom in the delivery. That’s a space where healing can happen, in the open-eyed acknowledgment of another’s pain. Beth, I dedicate today’s post to you.