“Everything Happens for a Reason” August 4, 2009

“Everything Happens for a Reason”

Just like Sabio, this has happened to me before: a close friend is telling me how she just broke up with a boyfriend, or how she lost her job, or something else really depressing.

At some point, she utters: “This is all happening for a reason.”

Or: “It’s part of God’s plan.”

The polite thing to do is smile and nod. But I can’t bring myself to do that. I also don’t want to say what I’m thinking (“No it’s not”) and make this about religion… or me.

In such situations, Sabio does this:

I take her sentence: “I believe everything happens for a reason” and translate it to say, “When bad things happen to me, I try to rebound and see if I can turn something good out of something that is obviously bad.“ Wheeww, there, with that translation there are no divine plans and no anthropocentrism. Now my analytic, cynical brain can listen with sincerity!

Now, this may be exactly what the woman meant, or she may indeed believe in a puppet master in the sky who cares for her and has big plans for her well-being. I can’t tell by her one statement. But for now, I will settle for my generous translation.

What do you do?

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  • Siamang

    Yes, everything does happen for a reason. But those reasons are not in the future.

    Your friend lost their job because of the economy, or their work performance. Not because a better job is waiting for them.

    People who try to use “the future” as reasons for why things happen to them are refusing or forgetting to look at the actual reasons. It is a mechanism of denial.

    The people who do this often have many compounding problems. I’ve often noticed that the people with a lot of problems are people who are very bad at solving a few easier problems early.

  • Ron in Houston

    “Everything happens for a reason.”

    “Yeah, you’re a complete and total bitch.”

    (Hmmm, maybe there’s a reason I don’t have too many friends.)

  • Matthew

    I roll my eyes, internally, and strike this person off my list of rational people that I can hold a conversation with. Small talk, yes. Rational conversation, no.

  • SarahH

    I like the Doctor Horrible take on it:

    Penny: But, you know… everything happens.

    Dr. Horrible: Don’t say “for a reason”.
    Penny: No, I’m just saying that… everything happens.

  • Jamesy

    My eyes roll back in my head, i foam at the mouth, and my brain silently screams “SHUT YOUR MOUTH YOU IGNORANT TWAT!” But what really comes out is absolutely nothing.

    When my dad died of colon cancer (a horrible experience in my life) people wouldn’t stop saying this to me. It was fine at first, then i want to punch each and every one of them, very, very hard.

    Now, absolutely NOTHING irks me more than “Everything happens for a reason”

  • My wife uses the phrase, “everything happens for a reason,” at least three or four times a week. I just smile, and nod, and say, “yes,dear.”

  • Yes, everything does happen for a reason. But those reasons are not in the future.

    Your friend lost their job because of the economy, or their work performance. Not because a better job is waiting for them.


  • jeffcia

    I usually say that the reasons are mostly gravity, friction, and electromagnetism. Throw in some genetics and pure chance, and I think you’ve got it covered. I know that always made me feel better after a bad breakup 🙂

  • Sarah TX

    I say, “So it goes.”

    Really, no one can say express a hopeful view of a chaotic and random world better than Vonnegut.

  • I would comfort my friend, but encourage him or her to not give up. Trusting that “fate” or “god” or whatever will make everything better doesn’t work – so, basically, I would advise my friend to take charge and make his or her own life better, but I would be there to provide support, encouragement, and advice.

  • Richard Wade

    What do you do?

    Depending on my relationship with the person, I might ask “What do you mean by ‘reason’?” Then I’ll find out if they mean what Siamang so lucidly differentiated, a reason from the past, a cause, or a reason from the future, a plan by some mind beyond themselves.

    If it’s a cause, then I can brainstorm with the person about how to learn from the past and possibly avoid further causes of similar unhappy outcomes, and to come up with their plan to handle things better in their future.

    If they mean a reason from the future, a plan that implies intention and intervention from a mind beyond theirs, then I’m not going to be able to help as easily, since we’re not having an entirely rational discussion. All I can do is to subtly focus on the actions and decisions they made in the past that they might handle better next time, but it won’t be as direct and frank. It’ll be more about planting seeds and hinting. If they come up with a plan of their own but still want to fantasize about the plan in the sky, I’m not going to get too argumentative. What the hell, they at least have a down-to-earth plan, whatever else they think.

  • Yeah, I’m the same. I don’t take it as any kind of higher power sending it to test me. I translate “This happens for a reason” as “We all have to experience ups and downs in our life – This is one of those moments and I’ll become a better person from learning and growing from it.”

  • GullWatcher

    I say, in a mild and pleasant fashion, “No, it doesn’t” and most often the other person doesn’t reply, and that ends it. They had their say, I had mine, and I don’t have to grit my teeth and feel my blood pressure rise.

    The original scenario, where someone is discussing her own unhappiness, is the least annoying version. It’s much more irritating if whatever bad that happened didn’t happen to the person saying it, but to someone else. Then I use the longer version: “No, it doesn’t. Sometimes things just happen” in a colder tone and I add a look. It isn’t a particularly nice look. It invites the speaker to consider that minimizing other people’s misfortune on the grounds that it’s part of a cosmic plan is less comforting than they might think. Still pretty mild, suitable for most occasions, and again, no gritted teeth or skyrocketing blood pressure.

    Of course, if someone says it when, say, they are dealing with a death in the family or similar serious upset, I will keep my mouth shut. It’s still wrong but at that point, my feelings of annoyance are not the most important thing on anyone’s agenda.

  • Robyn

    When someone says that, I pretty much ignore it to say something else about the issue. I’ll think about it later, but I wouldn’t want to make it about religion, and I still want to talk to them sincerely/comfort them.

    Of course, I’m bad at comforting people. I just am. I have this strong urge to say “This stuff happens. I’m sorry, but you can’t dwell on it.” Of course, I wouldn’t. I’m only an asshole in my head.

  • trixr4kids

    People like to say “everything happens for a reason.” If you repeat that in your head long enough it starts to sound like “anything can happen with a razor.”
    –Laura Kightlinger

  • Cafeeine

    I find Siamang has completely nailed my outlook with regards to adversity. When I’m faced with something awful, from a overheard vile comment from a coworker to an accident in the family, it helps me to work out the circumstances of why this occurred. That there is a reason for every thing that happened does a hell of a lot to defuse any frustration, and even rage I might have.
    After this post, it seems amusing that I may be misunderstood in this manner.

  • The Other Tom

    I would choose to misconstrue “everything happens for a reason” and focus on the actual real-world cause of the problem, such as “yes, you lost your job for a reason. The reason is that your boss used you as a scapegoat for his own deficiencies.” Or perhaps, “yes, you broke up with your boyfriend for a reason. The reason is that he was cheating on you.”

    Basically, I’d politely ignore their religious nonsense and pretend they’re trying to be rational about it, in the hope that I can help them to be rational about it.

  • tetsuo

    Everything happens for a reason, but not necessarily for a purpose.

  • allison

    I tend to say something like “Well, you know I’m not a big believer (if they do), but you know what they say: God helps those who help themselves! So…..how can we help ourselves here?”

  • Tony

    If someone feels better by inventing reasons for their current predicament who am I to argue? I just let it go.

    Unless the person is in a predicament is me and the person saying “everything happens for a reason” is a nuisance.

  • Dan W

    When someone says “everything happens for a reason”, I tend to have a couple of responses to that, depending on how I’m aquainted with the person and my current mood at the time. Sometimes I won’t respond to that comment, other times I’ll say “No, sometimes things just happen”.

  • Richard P

    On the odd occasion where it has been appropriate, and on a couple of occasions when it wasn’t.
    I have often tried to use this opening as an opportunity to stress the importance of personal responsibility.

    I have suggested things like, Yeah if our lives weren’t so sloppy we would not have created the circumstances that caused that to happen.

    Or, Yes but if we now take this opportunity to see how wanting to believe something is true, doesn’t make it that way.

    or, yes it does happen for a reason, if we would think about how x factor could have been prevented by thinking through y action before we did it.

    or, my favorite is “that is true, we should never do what we can’t do until we know what can’t be done once we have done it.”
    (takes some people weeks to figure out that one)

    I have come to believe what most people suffer from is a poor understanding of personal responsibility and the need to take responsibility for unexpected outcomes. We seem to charge ahead in life with so little reflection on the consequences of our actions that when things go wrong we always look outwards for someone or something to blame.

    This is what I like most about the freedom of not believing in a god, when shit happens in my life I know I created it. I know I am responsible for it. I know that I need to take the action that will repair it. It gives me an astounding feeling of freedom to know I am the one that is responsible for my life.

    but then again I have also been known as someone who suffers from a lack of empathy.

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    I’m an atheist, but my daughter is one of those “new-age” people, which has always been okay with me. Whatever makes her happy.
    Well, three years ago a man broke into her apartment at two in the morning, held her at gunpoint, threated to kill her as he raped, etc (the etc was the horrible part) her for three hours. She believed that he’d shoot her any minute, and hoped that he’d shoot her in the head, so she wouldn’t feel any pain as she died.
    After three hours he left.
    She took this experience and made something good of it. She moved hundreds of miles away, started life anew, has a GREAT job, many good friends, a boyfriend…and she totally believes that her horrible experience was meant to happen, because it totally turned her life around for the better.
    If it had happend to me, I’d still be in the corner, in a fetal position…(there was DNA and the man is serving life in prison…he’d also done this to a child). So while fundamentalist Christians bug me, I’m okay with New Age beliefs….because they saved my girl’s sanity.

  • John L

    I hear this a lot and I always nod approvingly and agree in some fashion. For me it’s like not telling a child that Santa isn’t real. Many of us are probably guilty of such things. I feel as if I were to tell them how feel that I may seem like some unimaginitive overly logical robot.

  • Richard P

    “Elsin Ann Perry Says:
    She took this experience and made something good of it. She moved hundreds of miles away, started life anew, has a GREAT job, many good friends, a boyfriend…and she totally believes that her horrible experience was meant to happen, because it totally turned her life around for the better.”

    This is what I am talking about.
    She didn’t wallow in self pity, she took responsibility for what happened, did what was necessary to repair it and created a better life than she had before.

    Who cares what tools she used, it’s the results that matter.

    You can tell your daughter if ever your inclined “she’s my new hero!!”

  • Another Atheist

    To me, “everything happens for a reason” is akin to “when one door closes another door opens” and “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. It is an expression of optimism about how an event that is painful in the short term can turn out to be beneficial in hindsight. Saying like this remind us to think in the long term, to look for the silver lining, and not to take ourselves to seriously. All good things IMHO.

  • bill

    yeah definitely one those things where i won’t slam or criticize somebody for saying it, but if we’re having an open discussion i have no problem tearing the notion that “everything happens for a reason” to shreds

  • AxeGrrl

    “everything happens for a reason” often comes in tandem with “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle/bear in life”…..

    and to that comment, I’m always inclined to say “really? tell that to every person who’s ever committed suicide”.

    I realize that assuming that attitude can be helpful/positive in dealing with seemingly ‘unbearable’ things, and on that level, I understand why some people cling to it ~ but I think it can backfire as well. If someone is really struggling or can’t ‘cope’ with a situation, believing that they should be able to can add guilt on top of everything.

    What’s fascinating to me is this question: why do some people need to feel that everything that happens to them is part of some ‘grander scheme’?

  • Tell them to read “Caveman Logic” by Hank Davis. It’s great!

  • Mark in So Cal

    I hear this all the time, usually from people who dont take a job or stop dating someone, etc. They look back and think their life turned out better for leaving but in reality who knows what would have happened if they stayed? Their life could have been 10 times better, maybe even won the lottery.

    I like to say things dont happen for a reason, things just happen and you reason it.

  • C’est la guerre. Most people don’t know what it means (France is less than 50 miles from my house and I know only two French speakers) so I can be both snarky and supportive at the same time. If someone says it’s their god’s plan I cannot help but roll my eyes a little. If I’m feeling particularly mean I might quip that their god must be fickle to inflict such hurt on one of their faithful.

  • Axxyanus

    In such circumstances, when someone is struggling with some depressing situation, I don’t say much, I try to listen to the pain they are expressing and in so doing hope to bring some comfort. People in such situations may ask questions like: “Why me?” or may say things like “There has to be a reason”. These shouldn’t be considered as questions to be answered or as expressions of fact but just the words used by this person to expres his struggling with handling the situation.

    And the best you can do in such a situation is listen in an accepting way and show you understand the pain the other is experiencing.

  • I hope you don’t mind me dropping in here… I found this discussion fascinating because I’m a Christian and I also don’t agree when people say ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘it’s part of God’s plan’ because that belief doesn’t reflect what I understand from the bible about why crappy things happen. I’m not here to argue a Christian perspective or offer my theology, I just found it fascinating that this drives me (and a lot of other Christians I know) crazy as well… but for entirely different reasons!

  • I did a quick categorizing of comments here and see about 50% who would do a “Generous Translation” while the other 50% would either write off the speaker, ignore the speaker or confront the speaker.

    As this site is titled, this is over-all a fairly friendly crowd. I’d bet on some other atheist sites the negatives would be higher. However, I imagine many of us may write boldly but hopefully in person we are much more generous than our rhetoric.

  • CiCi

    After a somewhat intense discussion, I asked someone: “So you truly believe that everything happens for a reason?” Her reply: “Yes.”
    Me: “So, say you really really want to get married, and suppose that you’re going on 40 still single and hopelessly desperate…is that part of God’s mysterious plan? It’s all purposeful and in his head?” Her reply: “Yes, of course!”

    Things like that still boggle my mind. She is such a rational, intelligent woman, except when it comes to Christianity. She would be such a good athiest, minus the religion!

  • Doesn’t the presumption that everything happens for a reason negate the concept of free will for a theist? If I decide to push someone under a bus do I get to use the defence of “it was part of God’s plan” when I go on trial? Doesn’t this strip away any responsibility for my actions and imply that we are little more than automatons under a divine puppet master? Even if it doesn’t directly allow that puppet master g0d controls their actions it does imply that their actions are without meaning. If all their choices lead to the same outcome then what value to their choices have?

    Next time someone says “everything happens for a reason” I’m going to poke them in the eye and see what they say to that.

  • Sebeka

    I like this quote: “Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” – Joan Didion

    Sometimes I respond to “god has a reason” quips by saying that people (or economy, plate teconic shifts, etc) are responsible for the horrible things they do and that the good in the world come from people (sometimes the same people) responding to those horrible things/events.

    I’m not assigning those good works to god, but the other person is free to assume I am if they don’t say so aloud.

  • Kaylya

    It is true that often, in the long run, “bad” things can often turn out to be “good” things. Or at least have their “badness” mitigated by goodness that comes out later.

    And the attitude of “this sucks now but in the long run things will get better and might lead to new opportunities” is generally a good one to have.

    But take it too far and the idea that everything happens due to some divine plan just turns out to be a rather sick and twisted philosophy where God hurts and kills people (sometimes en masse) to teach others lessons etc. And I think you have to do a lot of rationalizing to find a net benefit from, say, the southeast Asian Tsunami or the Rwandan genocide. Sure, people are moving on to make the best of the situation, but a net benefit?

    And, of course, there’s plenty of instances where bad things happen to people that have very long term, negative consequences – like people who were abused as children who go on to abuse others.

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    Thank you, Richard P. You’re very kind.

    (While my daughter’s beliefs have worked well in her life, for which I’m grateful, I’ve always believed “When one door closes, another one falls on top of you…”)

  • I’m with Anita.

  • I usually just roll with “everything happens for a reason” as if every effect has a cause. Then I explain to the person that there may not be benefit to trying to figure out the cause, but they should instead focus on what this event is going to cause so that they can be a part of (if not manage or entirely bring about) a new positive effect.

    Everything does happen for a reason.

  • CatBallou

    I really enjoy discussions like this. I, too, roll my eyes at that phrase—at least internally. (That’s an ugly image. Never mind.)
    Once again, Siamang has elegantly and succinctly summed up the issue. Tetsuo’s distinction between reason and purpose is also significant.
    Gullwatchers’ caveat about dealing with grieving people is important to keep in mind, because in those cases you’re not having an argument or discussion; save it for later (or never).
    And then Axegrrl reminded us of one of the most ridiculous (and offensive!) bromides I’ve ever heard: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” I think that’s a fairly modern saying, and I’d like to throttle the idiotic Pollyanna who made it up. It’s obvious that people “fail” to handle their burdens—just look at the victims of war, genocide, famine, etc. And if they mean “handle” to include “die but be with God,” they’re just redefining the word into meaninglessness.

    A kind-but-naive friend moved to a cabin in Montana and keeps a blog. Last winter she posted a photo of rabbit footprints in the snow, and mused that, since God is keeping that creature alive, she should never worry. I was so tempted to remind her that freezing to death is the least painful death in store for that animal.

  • Richard Wade

    Making and executing plans is what some people do just to pass the time while waiting for God’s plan to happen.

    Looking for and taking a job is what some people do just to pass the time while waiting for God to bring them a job.

    Raising food and eating it is what some people do just to pass the time while waiting for the manna to fall.

    Going to the dentist and getting a toothache cured is what some people do just to pass the time while waiting for God to cure the tooth.


    I suppose that kind of thinking is okay, as long as they keep on just passing the time that way, instead of waiting idly for the plan, job, manna and cure to come.

  • Ordinary Girl

    I scream in my head. It has to be one of my biggest pet peeves. I think I should take Sabio’s advice and translate.

  • Q-Squared

    I just ignore it, pretty much. Unless they are convinced that god’s going to show up with a job in one arm and a great boyfriend/girlfriend in the other arm for them if they go to church every single day. Then I tell them that they have to work to get good results in life, and VERY gently push them in the right direction.

    I try not to be angry at sayings when my friends are getting out of a huge deal, but I do get a bit visibly miffed at the whole “God does not give you more than you can handle” saying, because it makes me think of suicidal people who feel even more guilty because of that statement. Again, I don’t confront them.

    I’m overly sensitive to other’s emotions (not, like, superstitious empathy- I can read body language and facial/eye expression very well naturally), so that’s probably why I’m not as confrontational towards people when they say that sort of thing when they’re getting over a ordeal or two.

  • I usually respond with – yeah – usually the preceding events…

  • Closet Atheist

    Don’t say “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of god’s plan” at the funeral for a stillborn, especially to the mother.

    A college friend of my wife’s had a stillborn. At the funeral, one of her in-laws said it was part of god’s plan. The mother, never known for violence, PUNCHED the in-law so hard she lost 3 teeth. The in-law filed charges, but the DA refused to prosecute. The argument over paying for the dental work and the loss of the baby destroyed the marriage.

    Folks, random events occur. Shit happens. Deal with it accordingly. Don’t assign cause or blame to imaginary beings.

  • So if there is no reason is there no meaning?

  • hoverfrog: “Its the War” 🙂

    Matt, we provide our own meaning. Meaning doesn’t come from imaginary friends.

    True story. I was once in a Christian small group bible study where one of the participants died of lung cancer. There was plenty of “everything happens for a reason” and “Its all part of God’s plan” going around. I remained silent in any criticism of these mutterings because I knew this was the way these people dealt with death… they knew no other way to deal with it. It would have been very rude and inappropriate to confront them at the time. Interestingly, they would also say that some of their family members (who also believed ion God) currently hated God for having this particular plan and taking the deceased in this particular way. Its like they were projecting all their grief and anger onto another external being and hoping for some kind-of deferred justice in an afterlife. Interesting psychology. I prefer to deal with things when they happen.

  • freddie joe cranberry

    I’m sure we can all imagine the possibility of an animal dying alone in the woods when no one is around to observe it. What reason would that serve for anyone at all?

  • Anon

    Things do happen for a reason I believe because it changes you. Can you imagine how spoiled we all be if we all got what we wanted? how ungrateful and wasteful we all be? The great people of the Bible have always been great due to their character. Things either make you hard or change you for the better. Who would you trust? Jesus or Pilate? I believe God tries to change us through whatver circumstances. We just have to trust him. The thing we don’t want to see is that it promises us persecution and trials which eventually make us stronger individuals. If we never knew our own tears, we would never know about the tears of another. The problem I see with the optimism wave is that it concentrates so much on getting instead of being a better person. You can be the best at whatever but be the most arrogant personality. We all can’t take whatever possessions with us. I’m not saying theres anythign wrong with getting but I feel as if there is too much concentration on it.

  • Anon

    For myself, the early death of another shows me how short and how little time I have in life so I better do the best I can.

  • beth

    I’m so relieved to know I’m not alone in my contempt for this phrase. My daughter died of excruciating bone cancer a few months ago, and I was told it “happened for a reason”. If the comment hadn’t been over the internet, I likely would have hit the speaker, similar to the mother of the stillborn infant.

    Just tonight I saw a person tell someone (who also has a family member dying of bone cancer) that “everything happens for a reason”. My stomach shook with anger for almost an hour. The phrase is so unbelievably vile and hurtful to me, I don’t even know how to handle it. It’s cavalier, flippant, diminishing, and insensitive.

  • Janet

    Although this is probably a dead topic now, I’m going to comment anyway. The phrase “Everything happens for a reason” must look forward for someone immersed in a religion. Faith involves total trust and mindless acceptance in its purest form. Looking back and believing this results in individual or species guilt. Punishment, teaching, correction, or whatever word is applied to suffering occurs as a result of doing something wrong. Having an all powerful being handing out discipline is immensely threatening and terrifying. A believer will often suppress this by looking forward, trying to see the suffering as something given in love to protect or create an opportunity. The mindset can be a form of survival. I could elaborate on the mental contortions religious people have to perform if faith doesn’t equate to not thinking for them, but that would quickly stray further into irrelevance for this topic. I pity the faithful… and will not confront them especially in a serious situation. I simply let it go.

  • Drew

    Indeed, everything happens for a reason, but that reason is not in the future, future events cannot change their past, meaning they cannot have an impact in what already happened, thus the present, what is really happening… What just happened, happened for a reason, something in the past caused it, or maybe in the actual present, but nothing that will be coming may have caused it, it is logically and chronologically impossible!!!

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