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Or, as my GF likes to say, "It sucks being an atheist: you can't blame anyone for what happens to you."

I'll also add that in the phrase "Everything happens for a reason", the reason is assumed to be a good one, i.e., it's not just God messing with you because he's a dick.


Ah yes, "everything happens for a reason" is one of my pet hates. It drives me crazy, that one. I think it's - at leats sometimes - a dangerous delusion.

Yet another beautifully-written post. Good to see that your writing at least is fully back to its best.

corsair the rational pirate

I have been on the "shit happens" crusade for years.

This nonsense (something happens for a meaning) gets trotted out especially when someone dies (and even more so if I child dies). Some people, for reasons that escape me, seem to take solace in the phrase "God did it" rather than "It is no one's fault, it just happened." To me that makes no sense.

Worse of course is the "God needed a new flower in his garden (or an angel or whatever)" level of crap. This just means that God is a selfish asshole (were such a thing actually to exist) who can't wait his turn for the company of the dead person even though he is going to get them for eternity after they die anyway.

Jason Failes

In 1995, the woman I was engaged to broke up with me because she became convinced, through a number of irrelevant happenstances and a scary dream, that we were not "meant" to be, and that she was displacing my "destiny" with a much better woman by being with me.

I think we would have broke up anyway, eventually, and for different reasons. However, the really bad thing is I had to watch as the same kind of magical thinking led her down a life path that she just plain didn't take any control over: A failed marriage, three unwanted children, no education, and no child-support.

At each and every stage, the same kind of thinking: I won't use protection and I'll only get pregnant if it's "meant to be". I won't sue for child support, and if he choses to pay, it'll be because it's "meant to be" etc.

It drives me nuts: An IQ of 195 and SAT scores that would have given her a free ride at most universities, and her life has crashed into a ditch because there was no one at the wheel.

Susan B.

This one drives me nuts. There's just nothing to be gained from viewing everything as driven by a purpose, and a lot to be gained from examining the causes of what happens.
I've made some mistakes in the last few years that negatively affected my ability to go to grad school, but by taking responsibility, both for making the mistakes and for fixing them, I think I've come out ahead.


Oh, man, am I familiar with the extra-level annoyance with things that I used to believe and now find silly. It's not just that I don't believe in a god or spirits or anything like that anymore, it's knowing that I tried desperately to do so, once. It fills me with the same teenage anxiety that made me seek out and try such woo the first time, just thinking about the woo now. Ugh.

the chaplain

Great post. I would add that this line of reasoning is used in some churches/denominations to keep believers in line. People should stoically accept whatever shit is shoveled at them because God is teaching them humility, making them stronger, etc. It's a nasty piece of manipulative rhetoric.


I can accept that people might use this slogan to comfort themselves when things in their lives are bad. But what I find truly exasperating, and insensitive, is when it's turned outward - and the well-meaning (or maybe not well-meaning) believer tells *others* that their misfortunes are the result of a cosmic plan we fail to grasp, that everything was meant to happen as it did even if we don't see the reason.

No! There is no plan! When ten thousand people lose their lives in a mudslide or an earthquake, or a thousand are killed by a terrorist attack, there is no higher reason. It's not just false, it's absurd and offensive even to say so. What sort of message does that send the grieving survivors, that the deaths of their beloved were foreordained? It's a travesty to suggest that such an evil could ever be justified, no matter what good might come out of it.

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, there's a scene where the skeptical Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that the suffering of innocent children is too great an evil to countenance for any reason - that not even some future divine harmony would be justified if it cost such a high price to bring it about. That's a far superior attitude, in my view. Evil just happens, and it's futile to try to divine a deeper purpose behind it. We should be rolling up our sleeves and doing what we can to help, and to hell with hidden harmony. It may not sound comforting to believe that evil is often senseless, but in the long run, adopting that attitude will give us a far better motivation to end it.


Try some other rationalizations instead. "I was having a bad day," "I didn't understand the instructions," "I guess you can't please everybody"... these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone's brilliant master plan.

Yes, but that doesn't have quite the same punch as 'The Universe hates me.'

False intention that I don't believe in, here I come.


excellent post, and very well-written. thank you very much.


Instead of "everything happens for a reason", how about "I can create a reason/purpose, if I need to, out of anything that happens"? I think it makes sense to stop seeing your life as a story written by God or Fate and start seeing it as one you write yourself. There are contraints put on you by what happens to you, of course, but you have some power over what happens -- and you have *ultimate* power over the meaning you choose to give it.


Jebus Greta you're a fucking goddess with the critical thinking and rationality whatnots. I've HATED this phrase for a long time too but could never articulate it nearly this well. My parents use it all the time and it drives me crazy. All I can ever think of to respond with is something like "really. interesting. I wonder what the reason was for ~4,000 kids dying today of simple, fully preventable starvation was then."


I think you are forgetting one meaning of the phrase (which is how I use it): "I sure know why it happened and could kick my own ass for being that stupid but I sure as heck won't share with YOU!"

David D.G.

Excellent post as usual, Greta -- highly cogent. This phrase is a pet peeve of mine as well, and it's good to see it get a proper thumping. I have always seen it as little more than a claim of victimhood -- even if it's often a willing victim.

Whenever someone says something of the sort to me, I usually respond with something like, "Yes, and you know what that reason is? Hydrogen. Ultimately, that's what it all goes back to." I could say "The Big Bang," of course, which would probably be more accurate, but "hydrogen" tends to get more satisfyingly confused looks when I say it!

~David D.G.

G Felis

On the one hand, I agree with every word of this, most especially the monumental irritation with every variation on the offending "everything happens for a reason" concept. On the other hand - and isn't there always another hand - everything DOES happen for one unifying, meaning-giving reason: The Universe hates you. It's out to destroy you. It wants you dead... and someday, it's going to succeed.

I'm not a raving paranoid (he says, adjusting his foil hat). I've just found a certain peculiar solace in the recognition that the universe is, on the whole, overwhelmingly inhospitable to life as such. Every individual life is a struggle against entropy, and every such struggle eventually fails. "Shit happens" captures the essentially uncaring quality of the universe vis-a-vis our insignificant selves, but it doesn't really capture the full reality that eventually some of the shit that happens is gonna kill you. But it will. And, oddly, everyone I know who faces that reality fully and honestly seems to be a happier, more vibrant person for it.

For myself, I find that embracing mortality - really, truly knowing that the universe is out to get me (oh, not me personally, but me as a living creature) - helps me keep a certain... perspective. Every moment of joy and pleasure is wrested from a universe that grinds inevitably on towards my demise. Every life I touch, every lesson I pass on, every student I influence is me touching and shaping the future beyond my own inevitable demise. Every moment of my life embodies some spark of wild chutzpah that I can only describe in metaphors: I particularly remember a 70s t-shirt with a cartoon of a massive eagle descending on a hapless rodent who looked it in the eyes and flipped it the bird: I kind of feel like that every day. Or at least I feel like that on all my BEST days.

It's me against the universe, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Sure, I'll lose eventually; but I aim to make a lot of noise going down, and pass my fighting spirit on to as many as I can...


nice post greta. this is exactly how i feel about the unscientific, presumptuous phrase "you only live once."

Oolon Colluphid

'this is exactly how i feel about the unscientific, presumptuous phrase "you only live once." '

This is a joke, right?


@ Colin:

No, it wasn't a joke, but rereading it I could easily see how it comes across that way! I'd better learn to be more clear or Greta's going to ban me from here.

What I mostly meant to attack was the presumptuous aspects of that phrase, which parallel the presumptuous aspects of the phrase Greta addressed. I don't think anyone can say empirically whether we only live once, or whether everything happens for a reason.

on the other hand, the fact that all people seem to be born, live and die is of course very scientific and in perfect accord with what we observe in actuality.

I just meant that science is not at liberty to say whether we only live once or whether everything happens for a reason. Those are questions for religion and metaphysics.


Man, am I blowing it. My above comment should have begun:

@ Oolon

My dislexic tendencies made me see "Colin" - sorry!


Great post, Greta. That drives me nuts too, and I hear it all the time, especially from people who've ruined their own lives quite handily.

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