Home > Communication, Reflections > Reason: cause or consequence?

Reason: cause or consequence?

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” — Obi-wan Kenobi

I read this quote on a handout about seven years ago.

I immediately raised my hand.

“Yes?” asked the rabbi leading the class.

“Is Obi-Wan Kenobi a Sith?” I asked.

My classmates laughed. “Are you serious?” one asked me.

The rabbi laughed, too, but his laugh was a kindly one.

“He’s not, but I can see why you’d wonder that based on this very absolute-sounding statement.”

Many absolutes absolutely bug the crap out of me.

Some absolutes really are unequivocally, objectively correct:

* In the year 2016, your human body will eventually stop working. (There’s some dispute what happens next. I sure as heck don’t have the answers.)

* On Earth, if you drop a large, unadorned object from some height, it will fall towards the earth. That is a function of how Earth’s gravity works.

* Vampires can’t see their reflections in mirrors. (If you can’t trust Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what can you trust?!)

Other absolute statements are really subjective feelings masquerading as truth.

One in particular makes me see red.

Everything happens for a reason.

My blood pressure rose just tapping that out on my phone. While I believe many factors–or “reasons”–contribute to most things that happen in life, this phrase isn’t spoken literally but idiomatically. There is, the idiom implies, some greater purpose inspiring each and every outcome.

It can feel pretty nice when spoken to a friend who’s celebrating some great change. It’s an affirmation of their non-luck, a verbal vote of your confidence that their good fortune is deserved.

But the statement isn’t, “All good things in your life happen for a reason.” It’s much more expansive than that.

(I still disagree, but that’s outside the scope of this post.)

Everything happens for a reason.

I believe terrible suffering can inspire phenomenal compassion.

I believe great loss can inspire the pursuit of beautiful change.

I do not believe atrocities happen so that these changes can be effected. I do not believe there is a single cosmic reason for them.

That people can choose to find reason to carry on and reach out to others after tragedy is remarkable, but that’s not reason as cause. That’s reason as consequence, a wondrous reflection of the human heart’s greatest capacities.

Warning: Potential triggers in this section

* An old acquaintance committed murder-suicide.

You know what I wouldn’t say to his victim’s parents? “There, there, everything happens for a reason.”

Your son’s murder served a great cosmic purpose! Take heart.

I hope they have made peace with their needless loss, and that they have found a way to transform their loss into aiding healing for others who have lost. I hope they use their son’s life as a light for others, but do not–cannot–believe for a second that he was killed so that others might suffer less.

* My mom suffered abuse, then mental illness, and then painful death to cancer.

I imagine myself getting an hour more with her and beginning our conversation, “Guess what, Mom! All your suffering was for a reason! I have much more compassion now and use what I’ve learned to support others who are struggling! Your pain has been great for me and my blog–thanks!!!”

I can also imagine the horrified look she’d give me before disappearing in a golden shimmer.

Not so cathartic for her, in the end.

* My friend Ra spent more than a year in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Her husband died while she was behind bars.

She is using and will continue to use what she lived and learned in prison to help build a better future for many. This related post fills my heart–and my eyes–more than two months after first reading it.

She will not let her time behind bars be in vain, and that is powerful … but the power, I believe, is in the consequence-reason she has chosen, not the causal-reason you’d expect if even the most terrible things truly happen for a tidy, affirming reason.

Everything happens for a reason.

I heard these words earlier. The consequence?

Combat mode: engaged!

I wanted to leap up and share my mind. Instead, I seethed quietly until I thought about my recent return to trying to accept what is instead of being affronted that it is.

“People usually mean well when they say this,” I told myself. “They are not going to stop saying it because it ticks me off.”

(In fact, it’s virtually guaranteed that at least one of my brothers-in-law will say it just to watch steam pour out my ears.)

I instantly relaxed, thinking these things …

… in part because of acceptance, and in part because I knew I’d be writing a post inspired by the saying.

Could I be wrong? Absolutely. I’m wrong plenty, minutely.

Yet I believe the more absolute an assertion, the likelier it is to be wrong.

I think what that’s what wise ol’ Obi-Wan was driving at when he spoke of Siths, though his specific words weren’t perfect:

The more you rigidly you see and say things, the likelier you are to be Sith-like.

I know enough about Star Wars now to know not to put that on my development plan.

  1. May 12, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    “Everything happens for a reason.”

    My favorite rejoinder to this is – yes, absolutely! And sometimes the “reason” is that people are jerks!

    For real, though, it’s always a good idea to choose to bring good out of misfortune whenever you can, but: 1) you have to heal first; 2) it has to be YOUR choice. Someone else dictating to you that you ought to look on the bright side Immediately Right Now Do-not-pass-Go-Do-not-collect-$200 is not acknowledging the emotional reality of what you’re going through.

  2. May 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    First of all that saying by Obi-Wan drives my boyfriend crazy and he will mention it every time Star Wars is brought up (which is a lot in our house). Second, I agree, this is just something people have learned to say. My mom suffers from Alzheimer’s. She’s 56 and she doesn’t know how to bathe herself or even wipe herself. If someone told me, “oh don’t worry, it’s happening for a reason” … I’d probably want to punch them in the face. But I, too, understand that this is just what people learn to say when they don’t know what to say. Right up there with “it will all work out in the end”.

    • May 12, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      Ditto what serena said. It’s a statement that people use to fill-in uncomfortable silences in emotionally-charged sad situations. Not that I like hearing it, but I get why people say. FWIW.

      • May 12, 2016 at 3:53 pm

        This comment really helped me to hone in on my discomfort. I’ve mentioned a few times here how one ex would stop conversation with me if I was defaulting to scripts; if he wanted to work with scripts, he said, he’d just work on his computers.

        At first, I thought this was really cold. But I slowly started seeing how much human conversation is scripted, and how little I wanted to do with scripts, which felt like the opposite of genuine human connection.

        This is another script. It can be so easy to simply run a script to save time and emotional expenditure in this busy, hurried modern world, but it also “saves” any prospect of genuine human connection.

    • May 12, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      LOL @ your boyfriend! I found it curious rather than annoying, but I probably would’ve picked a fight with someone if they’d said it right after I heard the phrase that inspired this post.

      As for the rest, I am so sorry. My mom had schizphrenia. Coming to any kind of peace with how hard her last few years were took, well, years. Hard for everyone years.

      I felt throat-punchy for at least a year after Mom died whenever anyone said something beginning “at least.” Afterward, I was able to recognize the words weren’t spoken harmfully, but, man. You could bet I felt better with the people who didn’t routinely say such things over those who did. (I wrote an entire rant about that a couple years ago.) Those who don’t are those with whom I feel seen and heard, or those with whom I feel best and safest holding close.

  3. May 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    I think people say this platitude more to comfort themselves than to comfort someone who is going through something terrible. They say it because they don’t know what else to say. Like you pointed out here, the phrase “everything happens for a reason” often doesn’t help and is actually patronizing, damaging and painful; but for someone grasping for something to fill the air, it comes all to easily.

    • May 12, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      Totally agreed. After Mom died, I noticed statements like this and wondered, “Now, why on earth would someone tell someone else to hurry their grieving along?” It took me a while to have just the right context to recognize it as self-comforting.

      I’ve been thinking about the whole of the presentation. I think the context is what really made those five words bug me even more than usual. The speaker didn’t actually say, “I survived impossible circumstances because of my positive thinking!” but it was pretty clear between the words.

      What I took from the situations he relayed was not that positive thinking alone saved him … but that extraordinary luck was also a component. I have known some beautiful positive thinkers whose power of positivity didn’t save them. I do believe there are merits, of course, but doubt salvation is one.

      In short, while I accepted the facts of his tale, I did not accept his conclusions.

  4. May 12, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    That one is another of the well meaning phrases that do my head in.
    I would rather hear a sincere I am sorry (or I am so happy for you) than a meaningless platitude. I am happy with ‘I don’t know what to say’ too.
    And am rapidly becoming a pedantic grumpy old woman.
    I do know, and understand why people say these things. But I would much, much rather they didn’t.

    • May 12, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Hear, hear.

      You mentioned once the option “I don’t know what to say,” a phrase I’m practicing. Thank you so much for that.

      It feels so peaceful to acknowledge the truth instead of fumbling for the “right” thing to say. Often, I think “right” is wide spectrum whereas we can find ourselves perceiving it as a single pinpoint impossible to find.

  5. May 12, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Argh! I’ve heard this phrase during a few dark times in my life and it only served to make me even angrier with a version of God that I used to believe in. Now, that I’ve mellowed slightly in my middle-age and view God differently, I realize that people say it when they’re not sure what to say. I know that hearing it has taught me never to say it! ❤ to you!

  6. May 12, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    I really enjoyed this post dear. And as much as I hate being uncomfortable, there are times that life needs to be without the ‘filler’ we feel is necessary, even well meant as you said.
    Some moments live on in us despite the well meaning words we tell our selves and without reason, rhyme or even purpose. I have PTSD from abuse, and had to learn the hard way that the more I listened to others words of encouragement the worse it made me feel…as though I was failing at living up to their sweet sentiments. I spiraled uncontrollably and then realized that the silence was good, needed to gather my chicks under my wings, heal my heart, learn to use my bit of hell to help others find their bit of heaven.
    I think I went off point so I am sorry…anyway – I’m with you sweet lady!

  7. May 13, 2016 at 4:24 am

    AGREED! on all counts.

    Especially your point about BtVS. If Giles has ever steered me wrong about demons or the occult? Then I don’t wanna be right!

  8. May 14, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    I’m with you on the platitudes. Normally they make me roll my eyes at the person spouting them.

    But when somebody says “everything happens for a reason” about my 40+ years of dealing with Crohn’s, they get a curt response: “oh? And what reason is that?” Grrrrrrrrr

  9. May 14, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Obi-Wan got the stink eye from me for that one.

    “God has a plan you just can’t see yet” is another that drives me batty. Usually well-intentioned, but not something anyone wants to hear when they’ve lost a baby, a grandparent, etc.

  10. May 16, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Nicely said. But more importantly, it simply isn’t true. A lot of really horrible stuff happens for no reason at all. Random disasters and catastrophes that happen to good people who do not deserve it. You see it all the time. People need to see meaning in the awful stuff that happens, but I don’t believe there is any meaning in it. We are lucky to survive and I am always grateful when someone bobs to the surface after the tsunami.

  1. May 27, 2016 at 6:18 pm

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