• Emily Mathison

Everything happens for a reason

Everything happens for a reason. You certainly know this line well, and likely amidst all of the 2020-ness you’ve heard it recently. It’s usually spoken by well-intentioned folks, sometimes with a spiritual connotation. And while it’s not offensive on its face, in emotionally charged moments I’d often rather respond with the polite “smile and nod”, than disagree and risk a philosophical debate. 

In replacement of this platitude, if you’re a good friend of mine and things are going especially 2020-like, you’ve probably heard me say: “It’s okay to say this is shit!” 

When I lost my Mom 11 years ago, I was inundated with every version of “everything happens for a reason” under the sun. 

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end."

“Good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” 

“Sometimes the best you can do is not think, not wonder,

just breathe and have faith everything will work out for the best.”

“Things happen the way they’re meant to. There’s a pattern and a shape to everything…

Nothing happens without a reason… Nothing is impossible.”

While these messages were written or said with the best of intentions, and I deeply care for every person who reached out to comfort my family, my sense is that friends also said this to ease their own discomfort. Discomfort with tragedy, finality, loss. Western cultures are generally very scared and unfamiliar with death, so this response makes total sense. We don’t know what to say when bad things happen. Plus, they don’t make cards that say, “This sucks and it’s going to suck for a while. The end.” But I think they should. 

From left to right: Peter (coworker), Wendy (Emily's mom), Dave (her partner)

When we attempt to tie tragedy to reasoning, it leaves us feeling that we should accept that terrible events are fate driven and deserved. More so, that we should find happiness in a belief that despite the sadness, this is all a part of a greater unfolding plan. And even if we can’t do that for ourselves yet, we should at least pretend to do so to help our consolers feel more comfortable (see: smile and nod). 

We like to believe that we deserve the events that happen to us, at least the good ones. Karma — spiritual cause and effect — begs morality and responsibility. It encourages us to believe that the nature of current events is the consequence of previous actions, and to dedicate ourselves to acting better now in the interest of our future selves’ happiness. 

Honestly, that last part sounds like good practice, I can kind of get on board with it.

Concentrated efforts and energy undoubtedly help attract certain future events. As writer, Alex Van Tol says, “where focus goes, energy flows”, and “what you focus on grows”. However, while you can improve your odds, your results are not predestined. You should believe that your success was meant to be to the same degree that you believe your failures were meant to be. A combination of effort and energy, and a dollop of randomness. 

By the same karma-ish token, I believe that if you are someone who does not pick up your dog’s poop, you are more likely to step in dog poop. But for logical reasons, either because you walk the exact same poop-ridden path every day, or because we’re lazy little monkey-brained pack animals. If we see others acting a certain way, we’re inclined to engage in similar behaviour. And if that action is immoral, we can more easily excuse our own poor behaviour. The less dog poop I pick up, the more others feel okay doing so when no one is watching. On the flip side, the more I pick up, the more I reinforce the sanitary social norm. But don’t be fooled into mistaking influence for divine reason. When you step in dog poop, it’s not because cosmic forces laid that little turd in your path after you cut someone off in traffic earlier that morning. The universe does not keep a poop-picker-upper tally and bad things happen to good people. 

The world is wild and random. It’s only our social systems that strive to add fairness and reason. Karma appears to prove itself in reality because when people act poorly, society’s desire for justice encourages retribution. Society delivers reason, reason is not inherently tied to events. 

Loved ones don’t pass, global pandemics don’t occur, and social unrest doesn’t erupt because of divine or fateful reasons. Hopefully, we can find happiness through resilience and the healing nature of time, but it’s ok to say that right now this really, really sucks. Yes, we will smile and laugh again, and maybe even find one of those nifty silver linings, but we shouldn’t be made to feel that our unfortunate circumstances have fateful origins or are putting us on the path to something better. It’s ok that there is no reason. 

So the next time that someone you care for is wading through the manure heap of life, I encourage you to sit with them and just say, “Pal, this is shit! This really sucks.” And then just stop talking. 

Wendy Mathison, trailblazer, geologist, mother of Emily, Clare, and Zoe. 

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