Wednesday, November 04, 2015

What not to say: "Everything happens for a reason"

A.Hanson, Denver, 2011
I stumbled across this really excellent article the other day, ""Everything Doesn't Happen For a Reason" by Tim Lawrence. It articulates the philosophy behind my care in chaplaincy.  I spend nearly all of my work hours walking alongside people who are living the very worst days of their lives. There really are not words for these moments, so most of the time I just stand or sit quietly. My ministry is one of presence.

But there are things that well-meaning people say that cause more harm than good.  I should preface that my patients guide their own care.  If someone expresses the belief that their illness or suffering, or that of their loved ones, fits into a plan that is meaningful or provides hope, I would explore that system with them.  I would never dismantle structures of meaning for someone.  This series of posts, "what not to say" is directed towards those who wish to support those who are suffering.

Platitudes like "everything happens for a reason" are misguided attempts at support that are much more like self-soothing on the part of those who seek to assuage their own discomfort.

Placing suffering into some greater plan is an attempt to push back the deep paralyzing fear that a crisis could happen entirely randomly. If we admit that someone experienced an entirely undeserved and random event, the unspoken corollary is, "It could happen to me too."

The task of placing meaning onto a random event, to find some greater purpose in suffering, is ONLY for the person for whom the suffering belongs.

Let me repeat that, ONLY the person who is experiencing the rupture of the fibers of their world can place meaning for good onto their suffering. 

No clergy-person or well-meaning friend or family member can assign a greater purpose to suffering.  Suffering is never part of God's plan.  It is not about drawing someone closer to the divine or reminding them to trust in God or turn their lives over to a higher power.

Meaning can be found on the other side of suffering.  I know many families who have found purpose in advocating for organ donation or financial support for disease research or have indeed found that their experience of suffering encourages them to draw closer to the divine.

But I also know people and their families whose lives have been destroyed. Who never recover.  Who never find meaning in their suffering.

Not everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes shit just happens.   By saying, "Everything happens for a reason" we refuse to see the person who is suffering. We do not see the pain right in front of us, instead, we jump forward to some greater meaning at the expense of the very real person who is living that pain.

Instead of saying, "Everything happens for a reason," say, "I can't imagine what you must be feeling. Can I sit with you?" or "I see you."

Or better yet, don't say anything.  Just be.  That's what I do a lot of the time.

1 comment:

livehomeandaway said...

Wnilst I agree that not everything happens for a known reason, I still think things get better when we accept that the problem / situation doesn't define us for ever. Meaning there is a purpose, but it's one we find if we don't let the problem swallow us.Found you on NaBloPoMo.