Is there a reason for everything?
As a psychologist, hearing about misfortune and tragedy is my daily fare. How do adults understand and make sense out of unexpected loss or life reversals?
An interesting article (“Does Everything Happen for a Reason?” New York Times, October 19,2014, by Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom) describes a young man who was seriously injured at the Boston Marathon in 2013. After numerous surgeries and months of rehabilitation, he developed a relationship with one of his nurses. Announcing their engagement, he wrote—“I now realize why I was involved in this tragedy. It was to meet the love of my life.”
This kind of thinking is common. Adults try to find a reason for misfortune (and good fortune too) that fits into a rational, ordered framework. Many individuals believe that there is a hidden cause embedded within life challenges. How come? Religious beliefs are one theory. Many adults believe that God has a plan for each one of us, even if we don’t understand what it is. Therefore, our creator ordains everything that happens to us. The why is pure speculation.
But according to the authors, who study this phenomenon, atheists just as frequently believe that “fate” is involved in unfolding life events. Even children who grow up in non-religious households express the belief that there is “a reason” for life occurrences.
This way of thinking has both benefits and liabilities. On the positive side, it has the tendency to buffer the feelings of loss and anger that can accompany unanticipated misfortune. Believing that there is some underlying sense of purpose to tragedy, we retain some feeling of security and predictability. It can lessen the ragged edges of grief.
The authors infer there is a powerful force in human nature to attribute cause and effect in psychological terms. We make sense of the world “by appealing to goals, desires, and intentions”. This helps us understand the actions of others and helps us in our social relationships. We extend these notions to external circumstances.
But I wonder—is there such thing as accident? Sometimes I can’t discern some hidden order in what looks random. Why would God want innocent bystanders, including children, to be maimed at the Boston marathon? Can’t someone just be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Some years ago, I had a conversation with Yeshe Dhonden, a Buddhist monk and the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, about this question. Buddhists believe in the concept of “karma” which is the ultimate in cause and effect. They believe that actions from “previous lives” can influence how events unfold in one’s present life. Dr. Dhonden said—“20% accident, 80% Karma”. Even devout Buddhists believe in accident.
There is a negative side to this meaning equation. Adults who contract cancer can believe that they must have done something “wrong” to become ill. Sexual abuse survivors often feel that they were to blame for their abuse. Is inner city poverty and childhood hunger part of God’s plan for these individuals? This way of thinking can get murky and muddy.
What do I think?
All life events, especially negative ones, can teach us important life lessons and create new opportunities, even in the midst of grief and pain. My brother’s death at 32 helped me understand the deep value of family. Was that the reason he died? I don’t know why he came to the end of his life, despite my deepest desire to find significance in my loss.
We all search for meaning in life. We want to understand the deep currents that propel us forward. We all want peace and wellbeing, joy and comfort. We want to believe that there is an order in what may appear like chaos.
While we may never understand this mystery, we can discern the lessons learned from life events. While this does not ease our pain, it can help us become better human beings.
What do you think?