Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.
We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.
And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.
For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.
Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.
As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”
Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”
Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.
Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.
God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.
Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.
I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”
Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.
5 thoughts on “Everything Happens…”
I totally agree, Malin. There is no rhyme or reason except for one man’s warped and twisted view of the world. In my view religion causes more problems than it solves. The sooner we evolve into a life where WE are the only ones responsible for what happens in this world, the better it will be. We either learn to get along or we destroy each other – simple as that.
I couldn’t agree more. Along with self-determination comes a sense of responsibility that has less to do with institutional morality and everything to do personal ethics. I’d like to see those muscles developed as opposed to a blind adherence to dogma.
Love your thoughts. I was trying to think of an examples that support “everything happens for a reason” and honestly I couldn’t think of any because I kept going back to what you said….”everything happens”. It is so true. I share your thought that is gives people some comfort to say that it “happened for a reason”.
I stumbled on this quote after I read your message….
…And I cannot let these times take my faith in humanity away from me. For it is during these times it is needed most….. (sorry, can’t read the author’s signature for credit)…
Spirit and faith in humanity are important to me in spite of world events. Not in all humanity, but I believe the majority of people are good and trustworthy. Most of my spiritual faith is what I see in nature. Human conception, a beautiful woman, the details in our plants, planets and people, the ability of plants to feed us and be able to be reseeded, our amazing geography (to name a few) are not man made. By who?
It is a rare trait that you don’t let past events define you. We all have choices on how to respond to bad behavior or treatment by others. My favorite quote on this is “you can’t move forward by looking backwards.”
I love your response to a comment from above…”Along with self-determination comes a sense of responsibility that has less to do with institutional morality and everything to do personal ethics”. Personal ethics. Personal “individual” ethics. Are most people spoon fed their ethics by social and mass media instead of having their own opinion or self determined ethic that defines their character? Interesting thought.
Appreciate your insight.