Beyond the Grade: "Everything Happens for A Reason." But What Does that Mean?
Beyond the Grade is a series of posts sharing minimally refined reflections written in response to, and dialogue with, students’ ideas. Past posts included “On Respectful Disagreements.”
As often as we are inclined to state that “everything happens for a reason,” it's important to philosophically interrogate this idea. What exactly does it mean?
On the one hand, to say, everything happens for a reason, states the obvious: whatever happens is the result of a prior cause. For example, the letters on my screen right now are the effect of my typing them on this computer keyboard. And the reason John failed a fair and well designed test is because he didn't study and didn't try to do well. Cause and effect. Simple enough.
But if “everything happens for a reason” is just a statement of the obvious, then it’s not really clear why we would even bother stating it. I'm not sure that it adds to most conversations or thought processes. Most of us are alert to the fact effects have causes. Our questions—and disagreements—usually have to do what causes produced the effects we’re all aware of.
Instead of telling us what is obvious, we now are being told something so vague that it could mean almost anything—perhaps nothing at all.
If, on the other hand, the statement that “everything happens for a reason” is meant to suggest there are larger “forces” at play in the universe, we end up with the opposite problem. Instead of telling us what is obvious, we now are being told something so vague that it could mean almost anything—perhaps nothing at all. At best such a statement that “everything happens for a reason” prompts us to as:
What are these larger forces?
Are they the result of culture?
Are they the result of political social structures and institutions?
Are they the result of divine intervention or perhaps of a mysterious fate?
How do we know these forces are the cause of the effect in question?
Some attach the “everything happens for a reason” mantra with the additional injunction not to “question it” and to “trust it.”
Without clearly specifying the “it” in question, we are left with little more than a deflated balloon for an idea.
A loved one dies; children are cruelly slaughtered in a mass shooting; one country invades and wages war against another; we lose our job; someone takes our money; a friend is assaulted by an acquaintance; people are trampled to death during a concert; a hurricane destroys thousands of homes; someone overdoses; a car accident leaves a 20-year-old dead; a pandemic sweeps the globe; a child is abused; a dog is abandoned by the side of a road.
We know these recognized effects were caused—that there is a reason they happened. What we want to know is what that reason is; why or how these effects came about?
Philosophical analysis teaches us to carefully consider the meaning(s) of the words we use, mindful that we sometimes use them in an unthinking, perfunctory way. We’re encouraged to define our terms and convey our point as clearly and precisely as possible.
Is there really as much insight in these words as we tend to assume, or are they a splash of words that obfuscate rather than meaningfully inform?
Applied to the "happens for a reason” idea, we're left asking, what the reason is? What assumptions might be giving this phrase a life it does not have on its own? Is there really as much insight in these words as we tend to assume, or are they a splash of words that obfuscate rather than meaningfully inform? Is it the kind of cliché that alleviates us of the responsibility of actually thinking through the complexities of life? And if there is some deeper insight behind these unstated, mysterious “reasons,” how do we even know this to be true? If the forces in question are mysterious, doesn't that really mean that we're even more in the dark?
One of the more likely explanations of the popularity and prevalence of the expression, "everything happens for a reason" is that we tend to fill in the gap of vague statements with more specific details that resonate with us. When we hear or read "everything happens for a reason" we think that the vaguely alluded to "reason" has more specific meaning, a meaning that relates to our existing beliefs, values, and desires.
…if that pain and suffering is part of a “larger plan” and puts us on a path to growth and improvement—an investment into an improved outcome—then we find it easier to make sense of and cope with.
Here the World Revolves Around Me fallacy, also referred to as Egocentric bias, is likely at play. This is the irrational tendency to presume that our want for something to be true is evidence that it is true. Many of us want painful or tragic events to have a larger "cosmic" purpose. The idea that our pain and suffering is the mere result of ordinary cause and effect patterns of our social and natural world is, for many, undesirable. But if that pain and suffering is part of a “larger plan” and puts us on a path to growth and improvement—an investment into an improved outcome—then we find it easier to make sense of and cope with. The problem as we can all realize upon reflection is we know that our desire for something to be true is not evidence that it is true.
This line of thinking is additionally problematic for those who believe that human beings have free will and are responsible for their lives. If the events of our lives are the result of larger, mysterious cosmic forces beyond our control—if we are “put” on one or another fated course in life—then human agency is denied, and with it responsibility for our lives.
Perhaps we should take time to reflect on precisely what we and others mean by “everything happens for a reason.” To unintentionally quote Justin Bieber, let’s ask ourselves and others, “what do you mean?”
If you found this reflection interesting, please share it with others and like the post by clicking the heart icon. And be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already.
Dr. Nall delivers energetic live presentations and engaging workshops on the subjects featured in Humanities in Revolt. Those interested in booking a workshop or talk can get in touch through Facebook or by leaving a comment.
Subscribers will receive periodic posts pertaining to the broad domain of humanistic inquiry, from the insights of great thinkers throughout human history, the meaning and importance of critical thinking and ethics, the underappreciated poetry in everyday existence, to contemporary cultural analysis and the ongoing struggle to combat human oppression and violence. You will also have the opportunity to engage the author and our online community in dialogue about each post.
Why get a paid subscription?
Paid subscriptions directly support Dr. Jeffrey Nall’s efforts to produce and share publicly accessible independent scholarship and analysis. Supporting donations can also be made through PayPal. For more about my work go to JeffreyNall.com and find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.