Sunday, December 28, 2008

Do Things Happen For A Reason?

I do not want to step on any toes. Seriously. Reading this at Unglued, however, got me thinking about a common enough assertion - "things happen for a reason". As we near the end of 2008, I have been given many chances to revisit this particular phrase. Someone I work with uses it quite frequently. I guess I have to say that I think it's a way people cope with events that seem out of their control. Recession cause you to lose your job/home/relationship/marriage? Things don't just happen, or are the result of forces beyond your control, but they happen for a reason. A random set of events set in motion another series of events that lead you to meet the person you spend your life with? It isn't all random chance, but happened for a reason. The most extreme case I have encountered in my life of this was the biography of a prominent local personage from my hometown area, who spoke of his mother's early death, the ensuing family dysfunction - alcoholism, serial marital break-ups, estrangement - as all leading to his embracing the Christian faith, meeting his wife, and landing a position that allowed him to do work that he loved and . . . become a prominent person in our local area.

Untangling that web of reasoning, a kind of Gordian Knot of self-justification to my not-quite sixteen-year-old mind, led me to conclude that things don't happen for "a reason". Things happen, and after the fact we insist there were "reasons" for them happening. Whether to justify our own actions (or inactions), to make sense out of the senselessness of it all, or to find that silver-lining amongst the clouds of life, or perhaps to marvel at the way events sometimes disparate, sometimes unconnected, can lead to profound changes or surprising moments of joy in our lives, the effort to make sense of the myriad and panoply of our lives can lead us to toss up our hands and say, "Must have happened for a reason."

There was a television program that The History Channel used to broadcast (perhaps it still does) called "Connections", in which the odd correlations and interactions among various historical events were traced from some random point in the past to some seemingly unrelated event in the near-present/past. What I liked about that show was not only the way it displayed the futility of any direct cause/effect link (most of the links in the program were links of passing historical interest at some particular time, having consequences only in retrospect, and certainly little meaning), but the wide variety of ways human beings have of drawing meaning and importance out of one event and attempt to apply it to another.

I do not believe "things happen for a reason". I believe that, sometimes, we human beings become the passive recipients of the result either of the actions of others or social/historical forces beyond our control; or we act in ways that may surprise us or others, sometimes in our own interest, sometimes not, and the results are not what was intended, or even perhaps contemplated as possible when the action was first undertaken, but nevertheless can be traced loosely enough to some initial decision on our part. While this latter may under some general understanding come under the heading "reason", I do not believe one can do so unless one stretches the meaning of the word beyond recognition. We may be able to find solace in the idea that "things happen for a reason"; I do not believe such solace, however necessary for a few moments or even a few days, can stand up against the terrifying weight of the reality that things just happen. Sometimes good things. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes, if we are resourceful enough, emotionally and intellectually strong enough, or just lucky and clever enough, we can draw something beautiful out of the morass. While I would never insist that human beings are passive recipients of events, the interactions of many different individuals, collectives, social and historical events make tracing any "reason" for anything beyond our abilities.

I guess I just prefer to face the fact that sometimes, as the bumper sticker says, "Shit happens". If you can clean it up and through the weird alchemy of life transform that shit in to something sublime and wonderful, that's great. I would hardly insist, however, that the latter result of much emotional effort was the reason for being shat upon in the first place.

Virtual Tin Cup

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