Throughout my life, I have consistently heard the phrase “everything happens for a reason”. Sometimes, it’s said because something bad happened, and it’s supposed to be comforting. Sometimes, it’s said because something good happened, as a way to affirm something more than blind luck.
Here is another phrase:
“People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”
It is the idea that no matter how good, or how painful a role they played, they taught us something, something that will reveal itself to us at some point. This goes hand in hand with the concept of everything happening for a reason. While there may be unpleasant lessons that happen through break-ups, they are lessons nonetheless. We have to be open to the pain and difficulty, to be truly open to what it is we are supposed to gain from an experience. It can be difficult at times, to think in terms of everything happening for a reason, but it can also be helpful. At times when we are going through a particularly difficult time, such as after a split, it can be very comforting to think that there is a purpose to this, and there will be a use for what I am going through this very moment.
A Thought Experiment
Let’s say that I’m on my way to work to give a big presentation to a huge prospective client. It’s a big deal. On the way , I get a flat tyre. It’s now clear that I’m going to be late. It’s now clear that the presentation that I need to be there for — to hopefully close the deal with a huge client — is in danger.
This client means a huge commission boost for me, which my family is really depending on. It also means gaining a lot of respect at work, for being able to bring on big clients and add value to the company. And this flat tyre endangers all of that.
What reason could there be for this flat tire? If you believe that there is a plan here — attributable to a divine intelligence — how good a plan could that be? I had a much better plan, where I made it in time to the office so I could be calm, cool, and collected for the big presentation, land the client, and ride off into the sunset.
The 2 Kinds of Reasons
One way of interpreting the statement is that every effect has a cause. The cause is the reason — the explanation of what made that effect happen. So yes, everything does happen for a reason. But of course, that’s not what the phrase is intended to mean. A cause of an effect is a backward-looking reason. The phrase is talking about a forward-looking reason — a way that the effect fits into a story — your story.
In the flat tyre case, there was a cause for the tyre going flat. Something punctured the tire, causing the air to escape. But, of course, that’s a backward-looking reason. It just explains the local chain of events that made the tyre go flat.
You could go further and say that the tyre was punctured because a truck dropped a shard of metal on the road, and I was too distracted to see the shard and avoid it. But again, those are just backward-looking reasons.
The forward-looking reason, though, is what you could call the purpose for what happened. Some call it the meaning. It’s the bigger why, and it’s what has preoccupied many a thinker throughout the centuries. It’s the question that science tends to avoid — either because scientists don’t have the tools to figure it out, or because they regard it as unscientific to begin with.
Are There Forward-Looking Reasons?
In our lives, for any given situation in which we find ourselves, there are plenty of backward-looking reasons — explanations as to how we got where we are. But are there forward-looking reasons? Is there meaning and purpose? If so, where do we find it?
To go back to my thought experiment: I know how I ended up with a flat tyre, and will be late for my big presentation. But why? What purpose does it serve?
Some say that forward-looking reasons come from an intelligence at work. They say that where we end up is part of a plan hatched by that divine intelligence. As resistant as scientifically-minded folks are to this idea, you have to give it some credit. It’s coherent and understandable — even if it asks us to believe in an intelligent planner we can’t see.
After all, if there is a forward-looking reason — a plan — the only place it could come from is an intelligence. Tyres and shards of metal on the road don’t make plans. Science may someday reveal that they do, but it’s improbable given what we already know about them.
But just because it makes some sense to say that forward-looking reasons, and thus meaning, come from an intelligence doesn’t mean that it’s separate from our own intelligence. Just because forward-looking reasons involve a plan doesn’t mean that the plan had to be hatched in advance, by someone else.
This may read as convoluted, so let’s go back to my example to illustrate how this works.
How To Create Meaning
So there I am, on the side of the road, stranded and coming to grips with the fact that I’ll miss this big presentation. In a fit of despair, I ask what the purpose of this misfortune is.
But what if, rather than thinking that a plan and a purpose needs to be figured out in advance, I realize my power to create the purpose in real time?
Thinking quickly, I call the office. I tell them what’s happened, and I make some arrangements. Then I call the prospective client and tell her that I just ran over something and got a flat tyre, but it’s not my disposition — nor is it my company’s — to let adversity dictate when we get results. So I ask that we proceed as normal, but I’ll be video conferencing in from the road. As soon as the presentation is done, I’ll quickly repair the tyre, head in, and we’ll all head out to lunch.
Somewhere in there, I inserted the purpose, the plan, the meaning. I provided the forward-looking reason for the flat tyre. The reason for my getting the flat tyre at that time was so that I could illustrate in real time to a prospective client just how well our team can overcome unforeseen obstacles and still deliver for them.
An actual lived experience like that goes way further than a bullet point on a slide, explaining how dedicated a team is.
In case you missed it, there is a divine intelligence at work, providing the forward-looking reasons for why things happen. It’s yours. You provide the reason why things happen — you just do it in real time — rather than before-hand.
When bad things happen to you, you have the option to answer the question of why by using them for positive action in the present. It takes creativity and openness, but there are ways — you need only look for them.
So the next time someone says to you “well, everything happens for a reason,” you can nod knowingly — understanding what they mean, even if they don’t.