Have you ever suffered a setback or some personal misfortune and had well-meaning friends rush in to comfort you with the words, “Well, everything happens for a reason!” or “You’ll just have to find the blessing in this.”
Some of us might like to believe that things do have a reason for occurring, especially when the incident has caused us actual loss or psychological distress. Yet there may actually be no existential rhyme or deeper reason behind a specific event, beyond any logical or fact-based explanations. Accidents might happen because people are careless or because of miscommunication, just to name a few person-specific causes. Other causes might be due to machine error, poor planning, unexpected changes in the weather, and so on. Asserting that a bad thing happened to a good person because a life lesson needed to be learned does not seem fair to the “student” or the “teacher.”
Several decades ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, in which he explored the desire to comprehend the meaning of these types of events. Unfortunately, there is really no easy way to make sense of the “why,” but that does not preclude an individual’s efforts to find a “purpose” or “meaning” of an event in his life. After surviving imprisonment in a German concentration camp, Victor Frankl went on to write the bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning. He noted that people can generally stand any “how” they encounter in life, if they can just determine the “why.” Believing that the misery we experience is a part of the process necessary to reach a goal can provide us with the strength necessary to keep moving forward. Frankl believed that individuals who gave up on their future were likely to die before freedom arrived. They were giving up the fight as if they had lost their reason to live.
Therefore, while assuming that every knockdown we experience is engineered “out there” for a purpose might not make sense, it may indeed be essential that we imbue the “knockdown” with some sort of meaning, lest we allow ourselves to become immune to the motivation that failure can fuel. Accepting that bad things can happen to good people—for no reason at all—can be a scary proposition. Humans like to feel that they have some amount of control over their lives.
Believing in a divine plan that has obstacles and “bad things” scripted for us is one perspective that can give comfort to some people who are in pain. Research has shown that a belief in a higher power can help people cope better with suffering of many types. As a counterpoint, others might feel that a being that beats us down is not the type that engenders their respect or belief.
It is not so much the finding of the “reason” that misfortune has befallen a person that is essential—that’s not the “why” that Frankl was addressing. The “why” that needs to be answered is about finding a reason to keep living and keep growing, even though a crisis has occurred. Ascribing meaning to a misfortune is about making sense of where you are headed, what you have learned about yourself and the world around you, and what you are going to make of your story going forwards.
What is the “why” that encourages us to endure a painful treatment for illness? What is the “why” that encourages us to honor someone’s memory, but move forward in life or in love, in the case of a lost partner? What is the “why” that allows an abuse victim to trust again? What is the “why” that moves a crime victim to refuse to forego the running route on which she was mugged? By looking for the “why” to account for how a misfortune found its way to your door has less likelihood of spurring forward positive momentum than creating the “why” you intend to keep fighting.
What is the “why” that will move you to get back up from being knocked down? Loss, suffering, hurt, trauma, these are not things we “get over,” they are things we learn to put into perspective and that become a part of who we are becoming. What is your “why” for not giving up?
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