It’s what so many young people say in response to accidents, deaths and other misfortunes. I ask them what sense they make of whatever’s happened. What was the purpose? What was the point?
“I don’t know,” says the young person, “but I think that everything happens for a reason.”
We pick away at this, wondering whether natural disasters, human cruelties happen for a reason, whether a relative’s cancer happened for a reason. And if there was a reason, then what was it? Who decided on the reason?
‘Everything happens for a reason’ describes an illusion of intentionality, a world organised and joined up, a world that makes sense because someone somewhere is organising it, making sure that it makes sense. It’s an illusion that needs to be challenged because the consequences for young people can be dire.
Young people are forever wrestling with a sense of agency, with what they can and can’t control in the world, with whether accidents are ever really accidents, with predestination, free will, fate, freedom, the nature of personal responsibility. Sometimes they believe that they can control everything and, at other times, that they can control nothing. It’s hard to accept that they might be able to control some things a little (a very little!) but that so many other things will remain beyond their control. It’s hard when education is offering a different rhetoric. Work hard, work harder, work even harder, says education, and you’ll get to control everything in your life. Embrace democracy, say the politicians, and then you - the people - will have control of everything. Get married, say the clerics, and then your love for each other will be forever under your control with no outside interference.
‘Everything happens for a reason’ is simple thinking. It denies that things might happen for no reason, that they might be ‘random’ (as young people might also say). When the really big things happen – disasters, genocides – it’s comforting to believe that there’s a purpose behind everything, something that makes meaning out of apparent meaninglessness and futility. But when smaller, everyday things go wrong – when there are no jobs to be had, when lovers break up, when families fight – it’s much harder to believe the mantra because these are the things over which young people expect to have control. They’ve worked hard in school and yet still there’s no job; they’ve tried their best and still their lover leaves them; they’ve helped out at home and still their parents are quarrelling.
When young people expect to have control and find that they have none, ‘everything happens for a reason’ becomes unsustainable and that’s when young people become dangerous, likely to take revenge on themselves, on other people or on a world for seemingly breaking its promise.
When young people say that everything happens for a reason, they need to be challenged gently and sympathetically. It doesn’t matter that we end up not having the answers but it does matter that we keep asking the questions. The alternative for young people is sometimes a catastrophic disillusionment.