We’ve all been there. We’re sharing a particularly painful or confusing experience with a friend and our struggle is met with the almost-inevitable cliché, “well, everything happens for a reason.”
The phrase, while almost always well-meaning, effectively shuts down the conversation.
Instead of encouraging an authentic, possibly-helpful dialogue, the adversity is unceremoniously summed up. What can possibly be said in response?
Saying things happen “for a reason” is actually a very natural, human response. It’s uncomfortable to be present to other people’s pain. We want to help, and it’s hard when someone’s problems just cannot be fixed.
It’s our attempt to cover up their pain and put a Band-Aid on it. It’s what we say when we want to convey comfort, but really don’t know how to express it.
Panacea for the Pain
Here’s the thing: we all want to think there’s a greater good for our troubles.
Believing there’s a higher purpose and a valuable lesson in our misfortunes is comforting. It helps us make sense of the messiness and obstacles of life.
When I’ve talked to people who have experienced true tragedies, such as the loss of a child, though, they rarely have found comfort in being told there’s a reason for their unbearable, overwhelming pain.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to find the good in our circumstances. Looking for the proverbial “silver lining” often leads to feelings of consolation and hope in the midst of tough times.
Even this, though, should be tempered. Constantly utilizing “cognitive reappraisal”, the process of looking for the bright side of unfortunate events, isn’t always the best approach.
According to a study in Psychological Science, feeling bad about an event you caused or had some control over can be a good thing. Those negative emotions have a purpose. They can help you learn from unfavourable circumstances and change behaviours accordingly if needed.
Sometimes, there’s true power and potentiality in unpleasant feelings.
Luck of the Draw
“There are good people who are dealt a bad hand by fate, and bad people who live long, comfortable, privileged lives. A small twist of fate can save or end a life; random chance is a permanent, powerful player in each of our lives, and in human history as well.” -Jeff Greenfield
The truth can be hard to swallow, but things are very often just random. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. There’s not always a lesson to be learned, or benefit to be gained.
This isn’t to say we can’t control and navigate our existence. We absolutely have the power to create our best lives, whatever that may look like.
My aversion to the phrase “everything happens for a reason” isn’t about pessimism, nor am I being condescending to anyone’s religious and spiritual viewpoints.
Instead, I’d like to change the way we approach those going through a catastrophe or misfortune.
Get Comfortable with the Discomfort
“When you can’t look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.”- Unknown
The most supportive thing you can do for someone going through a tragedy is to sit with them in their pain. Your job isn’t to fix it or make it better. Your one job is to be present.
There is nothing you can say that is going to make the loss of say, a child, any less painful. All you can offer is a sincere “I’m so sorry” and your presence. Being with someone in their suffering is the kindest, and most powerful choice we can make.
Once you’ve done that there are, of course, other more tangible ways of offering our help. Making a donation to a charitable cause in someone’s honor is another way to extend support, as is preparing and bringing a meal to the affected family.
Checking in often with someone going through a painful time, and simply saying the words, “I’m here for whatever you need” is also effective.
Comforting those dealing with a tragedy isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not comfortable.
Avoiding clichéd phrases, though, and learning to sit with someone in their darkness, can go a long way towards helping them begin to see the light.