I’ve never been a firm believer in the colloquialism “everything happens for a reason”.
Do I believe that some things happen for a reason? Sure I do. Take, for example, breaking my arm. I absolutely believe that was a wake-up call from the big man upstairs telling me to quit drinking.
But it’s when I start questioning if everything happens for a reason that things become problematic. Why are some people homeless? Why do people get cancer? Why am I bipolar?
If the phrase is taken literally, I can come up with reasons for all of those things. But that’s not the way it’s is intended to be used, nor are those answers comforting by any means. No, it invokes a sort of metaphysical and (often religious) meaning insinuating that in time, you will understand why this all happened and things will get better. It’s a way of providing reassurance and closure to life’s inexplicable hardships.
That’s a nice way of looking at things, but it doesn’t provide me comfort because I don’t think that it’s entirely true. I don’t look at the homeless guy I pass everyday on my way into work, sitting at the bus stop covered in a blanket and think to myself “there’s a reason for that.” That explanation falls short and fails to divulge any meaning that might provide me comfort or reassurance about my belief in the world around me.
I also don’t believe there was any significant or spiritual reason for me to experience a three month manic episode with psychosis. Do not tell me it was an exercise to make me a better person, or that I had some sort of lesson to learn. That would imply that I somehow deserved what happened to me, and that’s (to put it mildly) complete bullshit.
What does work for me is a concept called rota fortunae, or fortune’s wheel. This ancient philosophy “is a symbol of the capricious nature of Fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna who spins it at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel: some suffer great misfortune, others gain windfalls.” [Wikipedia]
This allegory is further illustrated by 6th century Roman philosopher Boethius in his work Consolation of Philosophy:
Lady Philosophy uses the image of the Wheel of Fortune to explain the nature of worldly life to Boethius. He is grieving for his lost possessions and status, but she reminds him that they never belonged to him in the first place. Change is the nature of Fortune, and if you are lucky enough to ever get to the top, as Boethius did, just wait a while, and you will find yourself at the bottom. She gives many examples of both good and bad people who lost their position and lives—both evil rulers and good philosophers. It makes no difference. Life is like a roulette wheel, a gamble. One must understand it is a game of chance. Humans are not in control. [Novelguide]
Rather than attributing a specific reason to fortune or tragedy, this allegory removes the element of purpose and replaces it with randomness. While it may make some people uncomfortable to accept the idea that much of what happens in life is (a) out of our control and (b) random, it brings comfort to me simply because it’s a truthful expression of the way things really are. Life is beautiful, life is tragic. Good things happen, bad things happen. Fortune’s wheel doesn’t care who you are, and it happens to everyone.
This is not to say that everything is random and you have no control over you life. The fortune’s wheel simply expresses the idea that sometimes, you really don’t.
And there’s something empowering about accepting that.
Fortune’s wheel takes you very high and then throws you very low, and there is nothing you can do but face the turn of it with courage.
-Philippa Gregory, The White Princess