Today, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I found a friend’s post talking about the diagnosis of a serious illness. It was posted in an informative and explanatory way – sort of a “letting you know I’m probably going to be going dark for a while, and also withdrawing quite a bit from my online presence while I focus on this really scary thing.”

Totally reasonable, and – frankly – kind on their part, as no one owes any explanations or warnings when they’re entering a dark tunnel, in my mind.

I typed in a short message letting them know if they needed any help I could accomplish from my zillion miles away, on the off chance, to just let me know, and after I clicked, some of the other comments appeared, and there it was. One of the phrases that drives me absolutely bonkers.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I have a viscerally bad reaction to this phrase. I know that, so I have to bite back a bit on the response I always want to give (for the record, it’s “Oh, Fuck off!”) In fact, my anger over this statement actually spawned a novella, where I got way more personal than I usually do and let the character be far more me than I normally dare.

Now, I also know the person who posted that phrase, and they’re wonderful. I also know that phrase comes from a good place – it’s certainly not intended to be anything other than a comfort. But having been on the receiving end of that phrase more than once, can I just ask y’all to take a second to strike it from your list of responses to hearing someone is facing a big bad of any kind?

Here are the problems with this phrase as I see ’em:

  • So dismissive. Seriously. It has zero empathy about what the person is going through, how tough that journey might be, or even how long this badness might take. It skips it entirely and says, “just think how awesome things will be when it’s over!”

  • It’s full of assumptions. Continuing from that last thought, for one thing, it assumes the bad will end. Some bad doesn’t end – lifelong chronic illnesses, the loss of a loved one – these aren’t things that stop. These might be things that can be endured, or from which there is recovery of a kind, but the reality is they sucked when they were happening, continue to suck as they happen, and can still suck after they’ve happened.

  • The person facing the bad thing likely doesn’t care about the “reasons.” This is huge. When you’re facing something awful, you’re not thinking about what it’ll be like when it’s over. You’re thinking ‘Shit. This is awful.’ And even if you are using the light at the end of the tunnel to get through it, visualizing said light at the end of the tunnel still doesn’t negate the shit through which you’re slogging to get there. And, again, this assumes there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in said situation that isn’t a train barrelling down at you at top speed. When in the midst of a clusterfuck that life has tossed your way, being told “the sun’ll come out tomorrow!” is as useful as brown shoes at a tuxedo convention.

  • It’s just not true. Okay, okay, I’ll grant some leeway here. In the situation that set me off this morning, however, I happen to know with 100% certainty that the person involved is an atheist humanist with zero belief in higher powers of any kind. The person who passed along the dreaded phrase, however, is someone I know to have a strong belief in the Judeo-Christian God, and I know that’s where the dreaded phrase comes from in their mind: God would never do this to you without a reason. Here’s the thing: as far as the person to which this crap just happened is concerned, the only reasons that exist in this context are unfortunate biology, shit luck, and entropy. And maybe gravity. And probably physics, I don’t know. You get my drift. Those reasons are zero comfort, they don’t believe in what you’re selling, this isn’t about you, so shut up. Also, something my awesome friend Ruth pointed out is also true: “[L]et’s say everything does happen for a reason. So what? It just might be a lousy reason. Doesn’t explain or excuse the horror of the thing that has happened.”

    Disease is not some sort of sport. Death isn’t a shiny challenge to master. Loss isn’t a cosmic test. Those things all just suck. Coming out stronger after isn’t some kind of “reward” you earn.

    Understand, I know my experience with PTSD means I have exactly that: experience with PTSD, and a lot of empathy for those with anxiety or depressive disorders. And maybe if I hadn’t gone through the things I went through, I might not have as immersive an understanding of what that’s like. That’s a given – we empathize better with things to which we have some sort of connection or history. Totally.

    But that’s not a “reason.” That’s a result. It’s a result of shit luck, awful timing, hatred, some bigotry, and broken bones. I didn’t need to experience that shit in order to learn that surviving awful things is awful and can leave psychological scars. I’m not a moron. I knew that already.

    That novella I wrote that came from this single, stupid phrase? It’s about a guy who learns, while he’s dying, that he can shift himself back to key points in his life and potentially make different choices. He has one driving regret – the one that got away. Now, in the original draft of In Memoriam, I included a bashing, but it wasn’t as on-theme as the rest of the story (which as I said is at its heart a bittersweet romance). I also had word-count limits, and it pushed me over. It was the most obvious scene to cut. I think the story is better for it, but the point of that scene, when I originally wrote it, was for the character to learn that had he not been bashed he gained a few good things and lost some bad things but was pretty much the same damn guy he’d always been, only without the trauma. That’s it. He didn’t turn into some sort of asshole because “the reason” behind that shit was to teach him empathy or some bullshit. No, he got bashed and it sucked and he – eventually – managed to get past it and get back to being himself.

    That there are positives that can come from negatives is for sure. But that doesn’t make the negatives worth it on some meaningful level. I can pour this crap into stories – and I do, which is where “In Memoriam” came from – but would I trade broken bones for a good story? Not on your life.

    So. All this to say when someone tells you they’ve woken up to a world of bad, maybe think a bit before you toss them a cliché message about their pain. Try “That really sucks.” Or “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” How about, “Of course you’re going offline – do what you have to do, take care of yourself!” Or even better, maybe a “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” Those are empathetic. Those are helpful. Those say, wow, that fucking sucks.

    Just do me a favour and strike out “Everything happens for a reason” as a response. Even if that person feels the same way you do about some sort of destiny or design, an offer of help or genuine empathy is way more useful. And if they don’t believe as you do, there’s a good chance what you’ve unintentionally said is, “There’s a Crackerjack toy at the bottom of this box full of dog faeces. Start diggin’!”

    (I’d go on about how this also translates to crap like, “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger!” but that’s a whole other rant. Suffice it to say, “no, not necessarily, and shut up,” applies there, too. But enough for one day from me.)

    Anyway. Have a great day. I hope there’s no pile of awful you’re facing. If there is, I’m really sorry it’s happening to you. Let me know if there’s something I can do.

  • 4 thoughts on “Reasons.

    1. I also cringe whenever a response to somebody’s misfortune begins with, “Well, at least….” Because knowing things could be (or get) worse is precious little comfort and often just worry-inducing.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. My least favorite one is “worse things have happened to better people,” which has been said to me…admittedly by a 19-year-old, so…consider the source. But still. More people should think before they speak. Can’t wait to read your novella, btw!


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