Platitude ain’t the right Attitude.

January 27, 2013 12:05 pm

Everyone, I think, is familiar with that cosy, soothing adage, ‘everything happens for a reason’. The subtext is that the world amounts to more than an insignificant interlude between infinite silences. That there is purpose, cohesion and sense to existence – that you are a creature integrated into the designs of a divine consciousness. That you should not bemoan fate, that destiny beckons to you, and that your misfortune is your fortune in disguise. A quick Google search suggests that the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ traces its genealogy to the lips of Marilyn Monroe. The quote in its entirety reads,

‘I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.’ 

Marilyn Monroe

Sorry Marilyn, but an ability to produce tidy, symmetrical sentences doesn’t thereby make them true. Her words sound like a psychotic bleating, a sorry parade of mental scars. When I was on facebook as a person rather than as a pseudonym, Marilyn’s wisdom featured a great deal on people’s profile pages.  And it all ever meant was that people had endured some traumatic experiences and found that they identified with the ‘me vs the world’, insularity of Ms. Monroe. Fine, that’s absolutely fine, because people find  meaning in her words and meaning is comforting.

But I’m concerned with what is true, not what is comforting. To begin with, Marilyn wasn’t the first person to say ‘everything happens for a reason’. That honour belongs officially to someone whose identity is indeterminate. Probably, anonymity was a deliberate act: for he who gave birth to it knew it was born from the obscene intercourse of an immature idea with a loose a tongue. But the orphan was subsequently taken to the world’s bosom, and cherished by it with unyielding affection.

I, however, believe that the orphan is fully deserving of a pariah status. ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is neither a practically helpful nor an enlightening statement. It is rather an anti-statement. Firstly, it’s worth clarifying that when it is said everything happens for a reason, what is meant is that everything happens for a good reason. So if you lose a loved one, or are made redundant, or suffer some grave illness, these are all ultimately good things – because there is a reason for them happening, and that reason is a good one.

Focusing in on myself, I would say that a current misfortune is working somewhere that I do not ideally want to be working. (For those who, at this juncture, question whether this is a misfortune, you have missed the point. Read again from the beginning, or bear with me till the end). So, if I were to moan about it to someone, the conventional and feel-good response would be, ‘but everything happens for a reason’. I would not react well to this response. It suggests, firstly, that it is somehow correct and proper that I find myself in these circumstances and not others-  it was ‘meant to happen’. That I will benefit from this state of affairs in ways that currently elude my understanding.

I object. What we perceive to be bad things don’t happen for a reason – at least not for a reason that isn’t readily comprehensible. So, if for example I find myself unemployed, it isn’t because there was an ineluctable force of goodness that bought me here, but because I chose to be bovine in respect of my studies: I didn’t put in the necessary study hours, I paid little attention to what I was told, and I was generally neglectful of all things that could have been conducive to satisfactory academic attainment. That’s it. To suggest that everything happens owing to forces that elude understanding is a philosophy that is a)grim and b)untrue.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Furthermore, there is no basis for judging whether or not it is true, except in retrospect. And in retrospect, almost anything can be made sense of. So five years later, let me imagine myself in some position of privilege and someone tells me ‘well, everything happened for a reason’. But how do I know that a different set of circumstances wouldn’t have resulted in the same outcome? And if I can’t say that a different set of circumstances would have made a difference to where I find myself in the future, how can I justifiably say ‘everything happens for a reason’? It would surely be better to say ‘there, there’ to someone who considered themselves to be blighted, because that is a phrase that seeks only to sooth, instead of aspiring also to a claim to grand metaphysical truth. Or you can call me foolish and walk away, in which case you words are not soothing, albeit true.

‘Everything happens for a reason’ is simply an invitation to abandon thought for pseudo-thought. Countless misfortunes afflict us all in life, and I think the appropriate attitude to take towards life’s unpleasant events is one of rational detachment and a determination to understand their causes.  ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is an insipid, sweet nothing of a statement. All misfortunes can either be changed through personal striving, or borne with reasoned steadfastness

 

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