This morning I was waiting at an imaging center so a photo could be taken of a lump my doctor assured me is nothing to be worried about. Naturally, I was panicked. Then something distracted me.
A tiny blond woman was weeping into her cell phone. She had cracked several bones in her arm while racing across an intersection. (New Yorkers, when will we learn?) She was a yoga teacher and the host of a weekly TV show. She was distraught about lost income, lost clients, and the inevitable cancellation of her new show. I asked her if she wanted to chat. She did.
She did a type of yoga that required handstands and super bendy poses. She was living month to month and didn’t know how she was going to make her rent. She cried through half a box of Kleenex.
A woman in a cashmere sweater looked up from the newspaper she had been pretending to read.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she assured the tiny blond.
If there is a less reasonable, more lunkheaded thing to say to anyone at any time, I don’t know what it is. I’ve come to believe that people actually use this phrase not to comfort a distressed person but to distance themselves from their pain. Never mind that it makes no sense.
I turned to cashmere lady and said:
“No, Madam, everything does NOT happen for a reason. I know what you think you mean. You think you mean that some good will come of it. Or that we ought not to be upset when disaster strikes because the universe has a plan. Actually, you have no idea what you mean and if I pushed your back to the wall and demanded you clarify this statement, you’d be reduced to tears yourself.”
I did not really say any of those things. I didn’t even glance in cashmere lady’s direction. I do administer tongue-lashings to out-of-line strangers on the streets of New York, but lazy irrationality doesn’t work me up. In fact, it drains me of any desire to debate.
I chatted with the yoga lady about my years as a ballet dancer and the toll they took in ruptured ligaments and cracked bones. I told her the name of the best surgical hospital in the city. I told her that you get a charming photo of your inflamed tissues the moment you come out of anesthesia. Morbid humor is often the best medicine. It conveys camaraderie and empathy. It conveys recognition of the seriousness of a person’s plight. It makes a person laugh.
My name was called and I was off to my own MRI.
Later, I waited for the elevator with a mother and her little girl.
Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get back to my own toddler. I told the little girl that I had a daughter about her age. (This is what parents do when we miss our kids: we tell other people’s kids about them.)
“Is she your first?” the mother asked me.
“We’ll see.” I replied. I assume that my miserable pregnancy, my fallow acting career and my financial status are not of interest to a stranger and “We’ll see” suffices.
The mother must have assumed my response had to do with my MRI. Maybe she thought I was gravely ill. She smiled at the wall of the elevator as we rode down.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
I considered yanking her hair and assuring her that it had happened for a reason.
As I walked into the early fall sunshine and headed to the cross-town bus, I thought about famine. I thought about the Holocaust, and Syria, and pediatric cancer. I thought about teenagers gunned down by police.
Everything does not happen for a reason.
This phrase-from-hell must be silenced. It ignores the most painful of realities: the universe’s indifference. It also emphasizes the indifference of people who use it — to the heartache of others, to common decency, to logic.
If you want to help someone in distress, buy her a cup of coffee or a cocktail. Tell her you have experienced something similar and you feel much better now. Tell her you understand how she feels, how unfair her circumstance is and how much it can hurt when fortune frowns on you. Smile. Tell her you are sorry she had some bad luck.
If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, but at least, I beg you, keep your indifference to yourself.
Just don’t say “everything happens for a reason.” Someone might give your hair a good yank. With very good reason.
Leslie Kendall Dye blogs over at http://hungrylittleanimal.blogspot.com and can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.
You have some great points here. That is a worn statement, and even if I do believe some nugget of truth is buried in there, it serves no comfort or use in times of distress. Like you say, practical acts and empathy are what people really need.
You sound awfully bitter. People are often just trying to be nice in a city that can be cruel.
Oh, I promise you I am not bitter. (I think you mean “cynical” but I won’t quibble.) I understand what you mean, but that is sort of my point: how hard ARE people really trying to be nice in this tough city with the use of a single thoughtless phrase? I am actually an optimist: I believe people can do much better by each other, and I think I made that point above. If I failed, I hope I clarify here.
I think the author’s very valid point is that it’s a pretty lame way to be nice. People use the phrase to avoid the discomfort of showing actual empathy.
Whether it’s foolish to say might be open to debate, but it’s hardly “nice”, IMHO.
Yep, there seem to be an awful lot of bitter mommies out there. Telling people what not to say. Taking offense at everything. Tiresome and a side effect of an entitled generation.
I couldn’t agree with you more! Add ebola to the list.
My severely autistic 15yo son is trying to pull his own teeth out and break his own arm, and no one in our large team of professionals knows what to do to stop him. The next person who tells me God only gives us what we can handle may well be punched in the face, and you can be sure that will happen for a reason. I know people are trying to be kind. When you’re in the middle of it, intentions matter much less than actions. The woman who broke her arm will long remember the stranger who cared enough to listen.
Sara I am so sorry for your son and your family. Truly, you broke my heart with this.
Right up there with the even more annoying, “It is what it is.” Grrrrrrrr.
Oh my goodness, I wish the internet didn’t fail us miserably when it came to offering support or comfort. I too feel heartbroken to at reading your story. I hope more than anything that you get the assistance and love and support that you need, and I am so terribly sorry you and your child are suffering. I wish this reply were not dreadfully inadequate, but I will not forget you or your comment ever.
Sara, make sure that the doctors have checked his serotonin, calcium, and dopamine levels. Any and all could be to blame. Could he be experiencing headaches or some other sort of pain? Self-injury is sometimes seen when a person is trying to reduce pain from somewhere else in the body. BIL in your search for answers.
Oh are you a doctor? I don’t think she was looking for Internet medical advice!
I understand this totally. I do think people mean well in a vague way, and are trying to be kind, but when you are the one suffering it’s not a helpful sentiment. A sincerely listening ear is significantly more helpful to a person who is in some sort of pain, I find.
Thank you for this!!! I too can not stand “Everything happens for a reason.” This was said to me by “well meaning” people after every one of our four miscarriages, and each time I wanted to scream and shout. So well said!
I loved this post! I really liked your list of supportive and empathetic things we can all do for the people around us – so often friends and family disappear because they don’t know what to do or say, and that short list was just perfect. Be there, don’t offer trite, invalidating platitudes but actually listen to the other person’s pain, and share what comfort you can. Great piece! Thank you for writing it!
I am not a fan of clichés. The “everything happens for a reason” is probably at the top of my list of sucky clichés. Maybe it does, but no one wants to hear that “in the moment”.
I appreciate where you are coming from, and I appreciate that some people might not find any comfort in words such as these. Then again, some people do take comfort in them. I think it’s just like anything else… people are all very different, and there is not going to be one platitude that satisfies everyone, but there are going to be some platitudes that satisfy some people.
ONE Of my LEAST favorite saying in the world. I always speak up when I hear it because it’s wrong. I won’t tell you sad tales but if someone says that to me in the middle of tragedy, I open up like a hornet’s nest. NO, suicide is not “everything for a reason” and childhood leukemia is not “everything happens for a reason. ” How about beautiful, old fashioned “I’m sorry.” AWESOME POST!
I don’t know you but can say after reading these words, “I love you! We should be friends.” Another words…thank you for saying what I’ve feel everytime someone says my father’s advancing Alzheimer’s “happened for a reason.” Bravo!
Wow, it is amazing that people can say that about Alzheimer’s! Or any illness. I am so sorry.
Actually, that’s sort of the point, the whole expression means that all these terrible things are part of some patchwork plan of the Universe’s or some other gobbledygook. That’s the thing about irrationality, it is exhausting to argue with. Also fairly pointless, I’ve found, unless people are really willing to pull apart platitudes like this one.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve heard this phrase too many times while suffering through three miscarriages. When a person is in a despair, the last thing they want to hear is that bullshit. How about, “I’m sorry you are going through this.” I believe people have a hard time showing empathy.
At first, I didn’t like this post. Why? I am one of those crazy people who has made “everything happens for a reason” a sort of credo for my life. I haven’t always felt this way. Quite the opposite in the past, actually. However, I am now a Christian and I swear to you that as I look back now with knowing eyes of wisdom, I can honestly say that each and every tragedy I’ve struggled through has taught me something, strengthened me, given me a new understanding, led me to a new place of freedom or growth… and the list could go on and on and on.
However, I do also see it from your point of view. It can be perceived as callous. I’m not even sure I would use that phrase as a one-sentence comforting strategy toward others. I would also start a conversation with her and offer advice and a shoulder. I shall watch my tongue!
I think the distinction you might be making is that when something terrible happens, we can get stronger from coping, from surviving. We find muscles we didn’t know we had. True enough, I certainly don’t dispute that. What I find astonishing is that anyone could use the word “Everything.” Everything? Genocide? Does this happen “for a reason” in the way people mean when they offer this platitude? The only “reason” for atrocities on that level is that humans have the capacity for evil as well as love. As for things like broken bones, it is one thing to say “I know it seems horrible now, but I bet something good comes of it, and I bet you will feel stronger for having gotten through it.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it happened for a reason, not a good reason, anyway. And as for your personal experiences, I daresay that if something truly irrevocable happened, you would not appreciate being told it had happened for a reason. Thank you, though, for reading and hearing me out and responding so thoughtfully. I wish we had more discourse like this in our over-crowded lives!
No things don’t happen for a reason.god or the universe do not have a plan.i think people believe this because they need the world to make sense.they need to believe that the world is a just place. And if something bad happens,the explain it away with fate because they don’t understand that things like cancer happen.and they need to believe that if they behave “correctly” nothing bad will happen to them.i think the sooner we get rid of such lies the better.of course we can search for meaning in our suffering but it doesn’t mean that everything has meaning and that we shoild look for it.
And how do you know for sure it doesn’t happen for a reason? Or that there is no plan?
I think, our point of view depends on our belief system, and that’s it. I guess, the point is not to force your point of view on others…
Just like those people in the article (wheather they really believed in the statement or were just looking for a quick way of coping with someone else’s tragedy without real involvement) you are imposing your way of looking at things on somebody’s suffering.
And if you told me that it’s all lies and the sooner I get rid of it the better, I’d probably want to “give your hair a good yank”.
Just offer compassion, without your little “thruths of life” (unless asked for).
I would never tell anyone that the belief system or mythology that she has in place to offer her comfort or get her through hardship is lies. I believe that many people need to believe things for which there is no evidence in order to cope with existential depression. I suffer from that myself at times, without a reason for it all, what’s the point? Being human is very hard, we want very much for the good we do to have some lasting impression or effect and we want the bad that happens to not really be bad. My point is not to foist this mythology on people who are suffering but rather to engage them in a more personal and human way. If someone who was suffering told me she believed it was all happening for a reason, I wouldn’t dispute her; that is what is helping her get through it. But for those of us who don’t find comfort in this irrationality, I ask that people think before they speak about grand plans.
This was great Leslie — and that’s coming from someone who actually does think everything happens maybe not for a reason, but the way its supposed to. I am not religious (though that makes it sound like I am), but I can look back at every crap thing that has happened and name lots of wonderful things that would never have happened without it. That said, I would NEVER force that one on anyone else, especially when they are in the depths of it.
Sorry, but no. There is no reason my friend is sitting by her 8 year old’s bedside because he is on hospice due to a brain tumor. Nothing “wonderful” comes from that to justify her kid dying.
Ugh, I hate this phrase! I had a miscarriage when I was 19 and one of my friends said a variation of this to me. It did *not* help. I try really hard never to say it to anyone, ever.
yes yes yes yes yes yes. I used to believe in all of that nonsense until I realized I was really just trying to give pain a purpose. Once I stopped doing that, realized how random (and sometimes unfair) life really is, and confronted my pain head on, I became a better person, a more compassionate person. Everything does NOT happen for a reason, and rather than leaving it to some imaginary idea to provide comfort, we should hold each other up. Hope the MRI shows you’re healthy!
Thank you! I believe you articulated what I was getting at better than I did in far fewer words! And yes, my MRI turned out fine, after a few terrifying follow up tests. Thank you for your good wishes!
I agree that it is a problematic platitude. Offering a hug or help would be much more appreciated than sharing some vague notion that this is part of a master plan in which we are pawns.
I like to think that if there is a god, that it is not a scheming Dr. Evil / Mr. Burns type, but more of a fuzzy Care Bear in the clouds.
So much this. There’s no one pulling any strings according to any plan. Things just happen, and sometimes they suck. If I might offer one change, though? Don’t tell someone you know how they feel. Perhaps “I can’t imagine how you must feel”, or something similar. But, thanks for a great post! Maybe one day that phrase will die off.
That’s an excellent point. I don’t know that I meant that literally, but obviously I need to watch my words when I am criticizing other people’s words! I think sometimes with very close friends we have the ability to say “Oh yes, I know just what you mean!” but with strangers it is best to listen first. I think it is okay to “imagine” how someone must feel and say so, but not express that you”know” with certainty. Good point.
Thank you for writing this. A thousand “thank you’s.” Replace this hackneyed cliche’ — along with “God has a plan for everyone” — with a simple, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m a total stranger and I don’t know what to say, but is there something I can do for you right now? Get you a cup of coffee, something to eat, a soda, a box of tissue? You’re crying. I know it’s hard to talk when you’re crying. Can I help you by calling a family member or a friend? I can just sit here and keep you company, too.” All those things are useful.
My husband died a horrible death from a rare bacterium acquired IN THE HOSPITAL. NONE of our friends
trotted out that tired cliche. But countless strangers told me “Everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t understand it right now,” “God ha a plan for everyone” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God needed another angel in his choir.” Amazingly,much of this came from RELATIVES.
I had to find a psychiatrist and was put on antidepressants. I have never been depressed before. My husband’s death rendered me barely functional. I could barely go to work and buy groceries. I am just now, eight months later, starting to have coffee with a friends and do anything beyond basic errands. I just started taking yoga classes again after a 20-year lapse (“no time” due to work and family). I am JUST starting to take a few tentative steps on the road to being a HALFWAY normal person again. It is so much easier for me to accept the utter randomness of it than to think some heartless deity made my husband suffer horribly and die at an early age “for a reason.” Maybe the expression wouldn’t burn so deeply if he’d simply dropped dead from a heart attack. But I know how much he suffered. Tthere is a REASON for that? More specifically, a PURPOSE? Because there is always a REASON, a cause — my young cousin died because a drunk driver ran over him on his bicycle. That was the REASON he died. But people, confusing “reason” with “purpose,” were telling his mother that a 12-year old was run over by a WATER DELIVERY TRUCK for some divine PURPOSE?
Firstly, I am SO horribly sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine, although all of us who have spouses and significant others and relatives and children, so * all *of us, spend time contemplating the unimaginable of losing them and then we have only an inkling of the horror of actually experiencing it. There are indeed two uses of the word, and obviously people don’t mean “reason” as in the literal reason for something, ie, gravity or cells mutating or any other cause of an event. When people use this phrase they mean some vague grand plan, be it a “god” or some other “spiritual” force. I have no patience for irrationality, particularly when it is combined with lack of empathy, which is what I was getting at above. A friend of mine sent me an article from the NY Times that mentioned some study that demonstrated that people are prone to wanting to believe that everything is part of a grand plan. People need to feel order in their lives I suppose. I don’t have such a need. I would prefer the company of loving, rational, empathetic friends and strangers. But I know that battling irrationality is a dangerous game, and I was quite nervous about coming out and doing it. As for depression, it is a horrendous struggle and I have written elsewhere of my own battle with it, which was not brought on by any one event. It is gruesome and nearly impossible to explain to those who have not, as a more eloquent writer than I once wrote, “dwelt in depression’s dark wood.”
At any rate, I hope that you are able to heal, albeit with a scar. Good fortune is handed out in ridiculously uneven quantities ( and I mean “handed out”metaphorically!) I hope you get some soon, as it is certainly your turn for a lot of it. Thank you for writing, and my sincere condolences for your horrible loss.
I can not think of a trying time in my past where there did not end being a reason or purpose for the pain and suffering. It may have become clear years later but it did become obvious. Maybe it is my christian faith but I believe there is a greater plan than just the current event I am experiencing. One of my best friends just commented earlier this week on Infant Loss Remembrance day (cant remember exactly what it was called) that she looks at her 4 year old son and thinks that if she had not miscarried baby number 2 she would not have had her son. Sometimes the phrase does help people because they have examples in thier life to look at and know that the purpose will become clear eventually.
So often people say: “I understand how you feel” Do you? Do you know ME? Do you know my family and friends and how we all feel about me dying from cancer? No, you DON’T know how I feel. Maybe you can truly empathize with the situation, but no matter how hard you try you will never ever be able to know how I feel. Neither would I know how you feel if something catastrophic OR happy happens to you! Once I asked someone to please tell me how I felt, since he told me he understood….. He couldn’t…Did not say one single word. I never get angry, irritated maybe … and when someone gave me the line about god and the “plan” I said I wasn’t a christian…. Well! SHE understood IMMEDIATELY why I am ill…LOL We have to be careful how we approach a situation… Empathy is great….taking me for margaritas is much more helpful than giving me the “you poor dying thing” look. Make me laugh, help me forget for a moment. Actually I often forget, not out of denial, but because I am too busy living so you DON’T need to remind me… Be my friend (if I deserve it) and always be real…Don’t be sorry, you didn’t cause the situation… That’s what will make me grateful for your being there…. <3
My beautiful 13 year old daughter died from aggressive brain cancer. A kind and caring funny joyful amazing kid who only put positive energy into the universe. If anyone dares utter that phrase to me they will be in the hospital for a reason
I am haunted by your comment. I think it says it all. I won’t risk trivializing your loss by saying anything more but how dreadfully sorry I am.
Had I the patience of a saint, the brilliance of a logician and the amount of time a person stranded on a desert island has, I still could not hope to explain the difference between rational and irrational thought to those who dislike my thesis. That’s fine; I suspect that many people desperately need to be irrational in order to be happy or at least not terrified of a universe that has no plan for him or her. (I will say, to the woman who adores her four year old, I am very happy that after a tragic miscarriage she had another pregnancy that flourished and a child she adores. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THE MISCARRIAGE IS CONNECTED TO THE LATER CHILD IN ANY WAY. Would this woman not shudder at the notion that should the first pregnancy have flourished, she wouldn’t have wanted that old kid anyway, so thank goodness that pregnancy didn’t last? I think she would.)
At any rate, I can’t answer every person who thinks she has an anecdote that somehow “proves” an emotional belief system that has nothing to do with reality.
I can simply leave you with this anecdote about my grandmother, who was maddeningly, if charmingly, irrational. She was a deep believer in “fate.” Her mother missed a ferry one day that was to take her to her job in a NYC factory. The factory burned down that day.
“It was fate!” my grandmother cried. “But, Mom,” my stubbornly logical and brilliant mother countered, ” What about all the women who died that day?” To which my grandmother instantly replied,”‘ It was THEIR fate to die.”
If you understand why the anecdote above is hilarious, you are probably on my side of this debate. If you don’t, then you will never agree with me.
OMG, that’s a true story?! We are certainly on the same side of this debate.
I love this post. Many people do believe this, I have often felt this as well, but never in the moment, and sometimes just never because sometimes really bad things happen and it just sucks. Others can never know what your process is and how you will absorb a comment like that. Kindness (I’m so sorry you’re hurting) would go so much farther here. We bring our own issues to everything we say to others without thinking of what they might need, or of how what we say might impact them, from the person who has lost a loved one “oh, it was his time,” when in fact, you are mourning and you cannot hear that, to a mother of a tantruming toddler “enjoy it, they grow up so fast,” when she really needs a kind word, smile, “hey, it gets easier” or, “can I help in any way?” It’s just compassion rather than judgment, in my opinion. Gentleness and not putting our stuff on others. Telling someone they have cancer for a reason. No. That’s just not OK. You can think that, but instead, just say “I’m so sorry you’re sick, can I bring you a casserole?”
I do agree that it is pretty insensitive for perfect strangers to sum up someone else’s misfortune with “Everything happens for a reason”, particularly when I know that people usually have one standard for themselves and a completely different standard for others. For others they may say “things happen” whereas if they were to experience the same you’d never hear the end of it.
However, I do believe that everything DOES happen for a reason, it’s just not always the reason that you’d like to hear. Just because it’s not a nice reality, doesn’t mean there’s no reason behind it.