When bad things happen, we all want answers. Looking for a reason is a natural reaction as we attempt to make sense of what is happening. Big things and little things alike. Personally, I have spent more time that I care to admit searching for a reason why I did not know I was gay until the age of 39. Even after writing my memoir Switching Teams, the question remains unanswered. I have tried with all of my might to take to heart the advice and wisdom of those who insisted that “everything happens for a reason” when everything changed in my family’s world.
The intent may be to offer hope, but more often than not it seems like a shallow reply. Often this response is offered when we are at a loss to explain someone’s pain or unable to make a situation better for them. In my opinion, pulling out the “everything happens for a reason” response is reaching to the bottom of the barrel when someone is experiencing something painful or unpleasant in their lives. To me, it is like telling someone who has just lost their sight to look on the bright side.
When I recently learned that an amazing twenty six year old woman, who I have known for over half of her life, needed to have a mastectomy due to breast cancer, my heart broke. As her parents told me, I felt sick and fought back tears. I wonder how they would have reacted if my response to the news included the “everything happens for a reason” reply? My only response was to convey how much I think this sucks. Plain and simple.
Moments like this are why I have chosen to remove this canned response from my pantry. Of course, most mean well and their intention is to offer an encouraging reminder of the big picture and grand design of the universe, but is it really the best we have? Think about it. Situations that are unexpected most often elicit this default life hack type response. In my mind, this says more about our lack of ability to meet someone where they are at than it does about our confidence that one day things will make sense. What if it never makes sense?
If you are uncomfortable when you see those you care about suffering, you are not alone. Who likes watching their friends, family, or anyone for that matter, experience change, disappointment, or tragedy? Not me. One bit. Sometimes words do not suffice. Not every situation is life or death, but it often feels that way for the person who is struggling. Trying to convince someone that the answer and purpose of their pain will be found and revealed over time will do little to lift their spirits in that dark moment.
Dark moments are called dark for a reason. There is little light that shines on a couple who is breaking up or divorcing, or on a child who is being bullied for being different, or on any of us facing a variety of challenging moment in our lives. The last thing my kids needed to hear the day I told them I was gay was that everything happens for a reason. Reasons are subjective, often take years to discern, and may not exist.
There are many deeply faithful people who truly believe that everything happens for a reason, which is not a bad thing. They gain strength to move through the mud from this deeply held belief. However, even the most faithful have moments of doubt and anger when something unexpected and awful drops in their lap. I never believed in the idea that everything happens for a reason, despite being taught and told this for most of my life. Things happen. Life happens.
Reasons are not necessary for understanding or coping with trying times. The truth is wisdom, comfort, and processing usually happen in our own time, and much further down the road, depending on our mindset. This thinking can be a coping tool that helps us move through a crisis or it can be an excuse to delay healing and leave us feeling angry or like we are not processing things in the right way.
If we are not careful we can spend a lifetime trying to figure out why things happen and miss what is right before our eyes. We run the risk of getting stuck and hindering our personal growth. How we rally after the fact is more important that trying to figure of why.
For others, ask yourself what you would want to hear in your darkest times, and say that. Say nothing and hug them if they need it. Saying I am sorry you are in pain, suffering, or struggling right now is also an option. Cry with them. Offer to help by asking them what they need. If they say nothing, do nothing. Knowing that you are there for them will be enough. I know firsthand that communicating to someone else what you need is virtually impossible when your brain feels overwhelmed.
For ourselves, accept that in every difficult situation there are countless opportunities for growth, learning, and bravery when the storm begins. Seek comfort before answers. Resist the urge to let the search for answers become the focus of the path forward. Trust that if a reason exists, it will eventually be revealed when it is time for the lesson.
Think about all of the times in your life when you were feeling lost, upset, or just plain wrecked and choose empathy first. Next time someone you know is going through the ringer, remember to be mindful of how you respond to them. It is possible to be courageous without knowing the answers. Being compassionate and truly empathetic with ourselves and each other requires more than responding with a catch phrase and is something we could all benefit from in our lives.
More on the subject: