on ‘everything happens for a reason’, and other pleasantries.

CW: trauma, sexual violence 

Since becoming a therapist and working with a whole host of hard and difficult circumstances I have found myself to be more mindful and more aware of how people (and culture at large) approach discomfort.

I regularly sit and watch folks minimize their distress, offering disclaimers about how what they bring to therapy is, ‘not really that big of a deal,’ or explaining and apologizing because they know other people have it worse than they do. I will hear something really painful, and watch it be met with a dismissive, ‘it’s okay,’ before the client moves on and away from their hurt.

My heart always sinks a little when I watch this unfold before me. And I can’t help but notice that we have a cultural tendency to dismiss and downplay discomfort and pain. We do this in a number of ways, and today I want to critically address one of them.

I was scrolling through Instagram the other day I came across a post that read,

“Everything happens for a reason and what is meant to be will be.”

My initial inclination was to make a defensive comment on the post, pushing for a critical dialogue around the idea of those seemingly comforting statements. I’d started to type before scaling back, choosing instead to slow down and information gather before hastily engaging. I find those words to be extremely minimizing, but does that mean everyone does?

I posted a poll on Instagram asking followers what they thought of the phrase, and if it was encouraging or bullshit. There was no consensus, with approximately 70% of pollsters voting that the phrase was more b.s. than encouraging. Yet that means about 30% of folks found it to be a helpful thing to hear.

The longer I’ve worked with people, the more critical I am of blanket statements. If something is categorically true then I think it should be applicable to all (or perhaps at least the vast majority?) people. In light of this, I have taken to regularly evaluating statements I hear in the media, at church, in books, and on blogs, evaluating their capacity to hold weight across gender, cultural, and socioeconomic lines.

I’ll consider questions like,

“Is this true for me?” (and if so…)
“Is this true for a woman of color?”
“How would this be interpreted by a trauma survivor?”
“Does this also apply to someone living in poverty?”
“How would this be understood by a woman in rural India?”
“Would men and women receive this in the same way?”

Listening through a more intentional lens and evaluating things more critically has had deep personal impacts over the past years. Many things have unraveled as I’ve started to consider questions such as these. Things that used to feel true are now shaky. I am more uncertain and yet more inclusive than ever before. I shy away from certainty and definitive statements and people/places who claim to have absolute truth.

When I think of the statement everything happens for a reason, and run it by some of the questions above – it feels grossly untrue and incredibly trite.

Even if in a moment of suffering we are aiming to purpose pain and make it palatable, I think we might be propagating a phrase that actually says really horrible and harmful things.

If everything happens for a reason, then that means:

-queer kids are bullied for a reason
-First Nation babies were ripped from the arms of their mamas for a reason
-child soldiers are forced to kill for a reason
-folks are starving for a reason
-millions of women and men are sexually assaulted for a reason
-the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda or the Rohingya crisis happened for a reason
-Travyon Martin was killed for a reason

I could keep going. But I won’t.

I think what this phrase and those like it can do, phrases that try and make hurt and hard things and trauma softer, is in an effort to make suffering meaningful that they actually run the risk of trivializing and minimizing horrific things.

In an effort to avoid sitting in the uncertainty and mess and the reality that life is hard and complicated and broken, and the mindfuck that sometimes it might be for no reason at all other than humans can be horrible and brokenness is everywhere – I think that we try and contain it by putting pleasant words around it.

But I’d argue that containing it in this way might not actually be as helpful as we think. And that we need to learn how to sit longer in the discomfort that shitty things happen, and learn to tolerate the helplessness that can sometimes accompany that reality.

When my father-in-law died years ago, much too young after a long cancer journey, my husband was given the kindest and most tender response to his pain when he shared the news with a colleague:

‘That’s shit.’

Years later those words still reverberate as a soft landing space and point of healing in his experience of loss and heartbreak.

Running it by the scenarios above…does it work?

-queer kids are bullied – that’s shit.
-First Nation babies were ripped from the arms of their mamas – that’s shit.
-child soldiers are forced to kill – that’s shit.
-folks are starving for a reason – that’s shit.
-millions of women and men are sexually – that’s shit.
-the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda or the Rohingya crisis is happening – that’s shit.
-Travyon Martin was killed – that’s shit.

It passes. All of those. Total shit.

In short, words matter. And just because something is true for us doesn’t make it true for other people. Our response to pain and suffering needs to be inclusive. Let’s be intentional in our word choices and our responses to suffering, making sure that our words don’t bring more wounding or pain to folks who need soft landing and safe spaces.

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