Agnostic spirituality Perseverance Personal Growth Resilience Video

Everything does *NOT* happen for a reason, but we can be happy anyway

September 27, 2016

The tragic story of the woman in this video moved me so much. I don’t think I will ever forget it. Sometimes, when I am feeling so hard done by, I think of people I know who have experienced much harder lives and I feel grateful and humbled. I’ll add this woman to the little corner of my heart where I keep these stories.

I don’t relate to or subscribe to her religious feelings. I share the video for three reasons:

  1. Hers is a perfect example of a horrific amount of pain and hardship that, to me, is senseless, and I’ll speak about that later on in the post.
  2. She is an example of someone who has persevered—which is a major focus of this blog—and has even felt joy after these tragedies.
  3. I liked how she compared Newton’s Third Law to suffering and joy, as well as pointing out that hard things that happen to us aren’t always because we need to change.

The video comes from the Mormon church, the religion I joined at age 16 in order to have a family that could provide me the support I needed. I found it when googling one of my favourite scriptures from Malachi about Jesus sitting as a refiner, burning way the dross in people, turning them into gold and silver. I wanted to help someone close to me who was suffering. Metal making is a good metaphor for how life can teach us patience and humility and other traits we would never choose to learn on our own, but which benefit us (and the people around us!) if we learn them. And sometimes it’s the awful things people do to us that helps us to learn these things. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s good that they did these things to us. The Mormon church preaches that just because good things might come from someone’s sin doesn’t make the sin good. “You’re always better off to not have sinned in the first place.” I don’t remember which Mormon apostle said this, but I’ve heard it multiple times. The idea is that the lessons we learn and the “blessings” we receive, we probably could have found some other way.

This is what I believe about the lessons from hardships, pain, tragedy, and especially harm committed upon us by other people. People who say, “I never could have learned that lesson without that painful, horrible experience,” might lack imagination. There are multiple ways to learn the same things.

It’s so tempting and easy to think that bad things that happen to us are for some great pre-destined purpose, or that they can all be made good. I think this is either innocent in its immature understanding, or morally and mentally lazy. I know, that’s a strong statement and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings with it. But I’d prefer to be honest about my strong belief.

This idea that everything happens for a reason, or that everything that takes place is neutral and what we do with it makes it either positive or negative, leads to apathy in the world for other people’s pain. I’ve never seen this belief widely adopted where it led to more empathy for people enduring problems and pain. Generally, when we think that someone’s pain is for their own good, or that they are mentally responsible for their own pain and can make it go away by doing some mental gymnastics, we leave them to it. And scientific data shows that people need connection and support to get through and over their pain. (If there are outliers, who cares? If we examined their genetic make-up, we’d surely find some way that they are outliers genetically, too, or we’d find some rare event that happened in their environment that explains their uniqueness.) So, if people need support, love, and belonging in order to overcome their pain and self-actualize, then we are condemning people to pain and failure when we pretend that their pain is their sole responsibility to overcome. We do this to preserve our own well-being, but that’s a shitty plan from an evolutionary perspective, from a karmic perspective, and it’s shitty in every faith tradition.

couple in conflict, sitting on bench

It can’t be coincidence that it’s privileged white people perpetuating these ideas. We don’t hear oppressed minorities saying these things, typically. Sometimes, you can come across an oppressed person who escapes feeling oppressed by focusing on the good and denying their oppression. But that doesn’t make them free. It makes them delusional, which masquerades as freedom. Freedom is an objective fact, not a feeling. Either you can move freely and have opportunities to succeed in the world as much as anyone, or you cannot. The ways in which people can be oppressed are easy enough to point to. They’ve been proven through scientific data. I’m sure there have been slaves who have found ways to be happy in their slavery so they could feel free, but that did not make them free, and it was most certainly not the solution to slavery that every slave should have adopted. Like, WTF.

But we create these lazy and harmful philosophies because the truths are too painful. The truths we escape are:

  1. We can find good from some bad actions without the bad actions transforming retroactively into good actions. This is cognitive dissonance for some people. The ideas seem to oppose each other and we don’t learn in North American public schools how to hold two ideas in our head at one time, so it’s painfully confusing and seems impossible. We want what makes sense and we want it fast. In the Mormon faith, for example, there’s a lot of debate over whether or not it was good and wise for Eve to have partaken of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was good that they were able to make babies, and knowing between good and evil has its advantages, therefore what she did must have been good. But she could have just listened to God, and maybe in time he would have provided a way for them to learn what they needed to learn. We don’t know that this was the “only” way for Adam and Eve to make babies or to grow. We are just trying to make a bad thing good, when the fact is she sinned. (But, also, we just don’t like that story because men have used it to justify making women submissive.)
  2. We are morally obligated to not cause harm to people. Sure, there’s the harm people do to themselves when they make assumptions and take things personally they didn’t need to take personally. But there’s also objective harm like rape, murder, robbery, abuse, bullying, and systemic oppression, etc. No one likes these things to happen to them. Because they’re objectively hurtful and harmful.

I heard someone on a podcast recently say that he got ripped off early on in life and it was good because it helped him to not trust people too much and not get ripped off again, perhaps worse. What kind of logic is this? We need to be stolen from so we can learn how not to get stolen from again? Why couldn’t he just never be stolen from? How about no one steals from anyone? That’s great that he found a lesson that was useful for a broken world, but his gratitude for that lesson is his good act, not his robber’s.

If no one was ever hurt by anyone else, we would all have energy to just produce art and innovations, to play, to dance, to sing, to make love, to laugh. Nature offers enough tragedy for us to experience loss enough that we appreciate the good in our lives. We do not need to hurt each other to learn a damn thing. It saps us of energy as we do mental work trying to make the bad thing okay.

jumping for joy in a puddle

So, how do we cope with the random senselessness of tragedy? What do we do with the blame we can rightly attribute to others so we can experience peace and happiness despite all of this?

We need to accept that everyone experiences pain and some more than others and it’s not fair. It should be pretty straightforward to accept that life is not fair. Just take the same skills that you use to cope with not looking like Naomi Campbell or Brad Pitt (uh, for young people: like… Selena Gomez) and apply that acceptance to life itself. Admittedly, the farther our realities are from some privileged person’s reality, the harder it is to deal with the unfairness, but what are our other options? Constant rumination and misery? Surely there is something we’ve each got going on that the privileged people don’t. Why not focus on that? How do you cope with a rainy day when you really hoped for a sunny day? Where do you direct your blame? You can’t really blame the planet, can you? Get angry at the planet? No, you just roll with it, you cope, you find other things to think about.

How do you cope with walking past homelessness, or seeing commercials of starving children on TV? What do you do to not come apart at the seams in anger and grief when you can’t do anything to fix the monstrously unfair heartache that’s in the world? You just don’t think about it, right? You give it a moment of sadness, some holy love and good intentions, and then think about something else. If you can do that with systemic homelessness, you can do that with your own life tragedies.

When you let go of trying to make sense of the harm that has happened to you, you can recover faster. At first, it can be disconcerting to realize that there is no grand reason for why you’ve suffered, no plan, no wonderful outcome just waiting for you like a Christmas present if you endure well. You might think, well, if this one hard thing could happen, then what prevents another hard thing from happening? Nothing, you’re right. And if your healthy young friend who did everything “right” could get cancer, that means that you could get cancer, too. It’s scary!

I find some comfort in statistics and stochasticity. With the billions of people in the world, there is bound to be at least one person who will lose all their family members to cancers, yes. But also, with the billions of people in the world, some people win the lottery twice. While a horrible thing could happen to me for no reason, a wonderful thing could also happen to me. If I’m going to dwell on fears of what could happen, I should give at least equal time to imagining all the marvellous things that could happen, no? I might be tempted to imagine negative things to feel prepared in case they happen. But I underestimate how painful tragedy can be, and I can’t always see all the consequences, so I end up being bowled over anyway by the reality, plus I wasted time feeling dread and fear before anything even happened. Whereas if I spend time imagining wonderful things that could happen, I might be more likely to actually bring them to fruition by realizing how happy something could make me and taking action to create that result; or by being so full of happiness and excitement that people want to be around me, want to work with me, and want to trust me.

As for what to do with my blame for people who have hurt me, I tell a healing story. Everything is a story. There are few objective truths and, as anyone who has ever taken a high school or first year philosophy class knows, we have no clear way of knowing that anything is true, really. But I do believe in science, that it’s our best tool to create a reality in which we can all agree upon, to facilitate harmony. Neuroscience and philosophy point to free will, as it’s commonly understood, at least, to be an illusion. This idea that we can freely choose at all times or even most times, is not really true.

So this is the story I tell, that makes intuitive and logical sense to me: People will always choose pleasure over pain. Where it seems like they are choosing pain, it’s only because a higher order pleasure is informing their action. For example, people will literally flog themselves bloody if they earnestly believe that this will free them from a guilty conscience and give them a clean bill of spiritual health, to be welcomed into Heaven. The pleasure they experience is an imagined future eternal bliss. Or, people endure physical torture to climb Mount Everest because the reward will be so incredible. (No one has ever been able to stump me with a situation where I could not find the pleasure that was driving an action, where they claimed someone was choosing pain. I invite you to try in the comments!) So, the people who have hurt me are no different from me, in that they are escaping their pain. They have unconscious pains that drive them and they are powerless to them. What can I do about that? Fight what is? Fight what no one can change?

I also try to think about the ways they were hurt that led them to hurting me. And then I think that those people were hurt by someone, too. They can still be to blame for causing me pain, and I can be angry or resentful about what happened because that is a normal human reaction nearly everyone experiences when they are hurt, even if just for a second, and I can even believe that they should be punished for it (because without any consequences, it makes it even easier for someone to be compelled to hurt others). But, I don’t have to believe that they are evil, or that they were even operating with all of their free will or agency. I honour what I know to be true: They hurt me and I didn’t deserve it and that was bad and they possibly should be punished or rehabilitated to keep them from doing it again. But also, they still deserve my forgiveness and understanding. I don’t have to like what happened to me to forgive it. I let it go because it was all that could have happened given all the ingredients that went into making them who they are, and making that moment what it was, and subconscious forces and more.

beautiful girl smiling in the sun

I continue to struggle when people who have hurt me don’t care, don’t want to know how they hurt me, don’t want to take accountability for their actions, project all their problems onto me, blame me entirely for a dynamic between us, and don’t care to change the situation. I alternate between feeling contempt for them, and feeling immense compassion. It’s a battle between my own personal frustration and needs not being met, and logic/psychological understanding.

None of the above requires a belief in superstition. We can be totally agnostic, not attribute anything to the “Universe” or the “Law of Attraction” or “God” and still create the same peace, freedom, and happiness in our lives as people who use those tools. (While I have no objections to individuals using superstitious ideas to get them through life, I take major issue with organized superstition guiding followers to attempt to control other people out of their own imaginations of how the world should operate.) While it might feel lonely or intimidating at first to think that the Universe or God does not have a plan for you, the fantastic upside is that you do not have to be looking for signs, confused, wondering if you missed your sign or if you interpreted it the right way. YOU are the master of your destiny. YOU can create anything you want (in theory). You never have to feel like you need to earn good things, or wonder what you did to deserve the bad things. You can get over the bad things as fast as you want to and are able, giving them no weight at all, and good things can happen to you just as much as anyone else who is living as you are.

Can you add any non-superstitious tools into this mix? What do you do to move on from hard things that have happened? Could you do this without “giving it to God” or telling yourself “Everything happens for a reason”? If not, why not? What is left over that you can’t resolve?

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