On grief and the pain it brings
December 15, 2015 2:11 PM   Subscribe

"And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence: Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow. That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue. "
posted by Brandon Blatcher (205 comments total) 118 users marked this as a favorite
 

Billy: I just, you know, I really think I'm qualified for this- this job, but I can't get a foot in the door.
Penny: I'm sure you will.
Billy: I wanna do great things, you know? I want to be an achiever, like Bad Horse.
Penny: The Thoroughbred of Sin?
Billy: ...I meant Gandhi.
Penny: I've gotten turned down for plenty of jobs. Even fired a few times.
Billy: I can't imagine anybody firing you.
Penny: Neither could I. Now I can visualize it really well. But you know, everything happens--
Billy: Don't say "for a reason".
Penny: No! No, I'm just saying "everything happens".
Billy: Not to me.

posted by Huck500 at 2:14 PM on December 15, 2015 [19 favorites]


that is why I share actionable tools and strategies to work with your pain in my free newsletter.

That was a clunky plug.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:21 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


Actually... it is pretty good.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:22 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


YES. THIS. THANK YOU.
posted by janey47 at 2:25 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


My enraged answer to this, and recall that I am a devout Catholic with two degrees in theology, is always to round on the person who just told me that "everything happens for a reason" and demand, "Really? So God had the SS slaughter millions of Jews FOR THE GREATER GOOD? God gives newborn babies cancer and forces them to suffer and die FOR THE MORAL EDIFICATION OF THEIR PARENTS? You believe in a fucked up God that I have no interest in."

Mostly I'm all for letting stupid things go, but some things are so stupid they do require instant Godwinning.

It's really a monumentally cruel thing to say to someone.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:26 PM on December 15, 2015 [190 favorites]


that is why I share actionable tools and strategies to work with your pain in my free newsletter.
That was a clunky plug.


the lesson here is there is no reason for your suffering and everyone's selling something.

(i'm gonna go get a drink, who wants to join me?)
posted by entropicamericana at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't think people say "everything happens for a reason" to be monumentally cruel on purpose. I think they say it for the same reason they say lots of other cruel, totally stupid, hurtful shit to grieving people: they are clueless and frail, and cave to the temptation to say *anything at all* rather than sit quietly.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:29 PM on December 15, 2015 [78 favorites]


Wow, great stuff- am relating heavily to all of it, thank you.
I recently saw a coworker who has had a difficult year post on Facebook, saying she had been sexually abused as a child because she chose it to happen. I was so angry and so very sorry for her all at once it was stunning.
Why do we keep inventing new ways for people to blame themselves for things out of their control? To find meaning in random bad acts? Because we find it so hard to carry it- to grieve it?
This is me, since age 8:

While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.
posted by TenaciousB at 2:31 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


they are clueless and frail, and cave to the temptation to say *anything at all* rather than sit quietly.

I think that's right, I think it has a lot to do with not talking about painful stuff so when people are confronted with painful stuff they are at a loss. I think it also relates to aversion, as described by the Buddha. When painful stuff arises, our first tendency is to push it away and make it foreign to us so that it will affect us less. That's not cruelty, it's ignorance (delusion) and fear. It sure hurts to be on the receiving end, though.

I'll also say that the most instructive experiences in grief I've had were at the funerals for babies. Saying to a grieving parent that I think this must be the worst thing that can happen to people can release so much that is being held inside in fear of platitudes. I've had the sad experience of having grieving mothers grab ahold of me and not let go because I was the only person present who didn't say something like "he's in a better place" or one of those.

Breaks my heart.
posted by janey47 at 2:35 PM on December 15, 2015 [67 favorites]


Mostly I think the reason that everything (bad) that happens to us is some combination of "some other person screwed up my life" and "reality is randomly cruel."
posted by emjaybee at 2:37 PM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


As someone tasked with teaching philosophy to undergraduates, I spend an inordinate amount of time addressing (and hopefully neutralizing) this cruel pablum.

Thank you for the link, Brandon.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 2:37 PM on December 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


Technically, everything happens for a reason, and it all boils down to physics.

None of that helps with the emotional consequences of tragedy and loss and difficult circumstances, and it would be nicer if people were more supportive in meaningful ways to each other when they are suffering.

My mother is Very Presbyterian, and she is full of platitudes, and more than once I've hung up on her when she's gotten too deep into "trying to console" me in all the wrong ways. But she hung up on me once, when I said "yeah, and the reason is physics."
posted by hippybear at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2015 [41 favorites]


This was great. Thanks for posting.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:44 PM on December 15, 2015


This is really good, clunky plug aside.

There's an essay by Molly Backes, "My Cousin Is Not a Hero," that touches on the bullshittiness of "everything happens for a reason" and people's need to fit their personal experiences into a structured narrative. It's stuck with me and I go back and read it every so often.
Ten years ago, my favorite cousin Jimmy was killed in a car accident, days before his 22nd birthday. At his funeral, a woman came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder. “God must have needed him more in heaven than we needed him here on Earth,” she told me.

I laughed in her face. “God created the heavens and the earth in under a week. I think he could go a few more years without the help of my baby cousin.”

What I meant was, we needed him here. What I meant was, there’s no story to tell about his death that makes it okay.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:46 PM on December 15, 2015 [101 favorites]


I hate "everything happens for a reason" but I can -almost- accept it if it helps people with their own pain management or ability to move forward. "A reason" doesn't always mean "a good reason." It could be it happened for a shitty reason.

But anyone who says "G-d doesn't give anyone more than they can handle" will get immediately flamebroiled.

There is almost nothing meaningful you can say to someone in the face of tragedy other than "this sucks. I am here." And I get that people want to say something, anything, to make you feel better. But "I am here to help you and in return I expect you to value me for my spiritual wisdom" is just not help. I wish more people would understand the value of quiet, unconditional support. Even - maybe especially - because it's so, so hard to do.

This was a great essay. Thanks for posting
posted by Mchelly at 2:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


j_curiouser: "I don't think people say "everything happens for a reason" to be monumentally cruel on purpose."

I don't think people are being cruel on purpose, but I don't think that renders it any less cruel.

Xavier Xavier: "As someone tasked with teaching philosophy to undergraduates, I spend an inordinate amount of time addressing (and hopefully neutralizing) this cruel pablum."

Haha, yeah, that's where I got super-radicalized about it too, convincing freshman their ideas were dumb and bad and they should feel bad, or at least not say them out loud to grieving people.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:49 PM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


I don't think people say "everything happens for a reason" to be monumentally cruel on purpose. I think they say it for the same reason they say lots of other cruel, totally stupid, hurtful shit to grieving people: they are clueless and frail, and cave to the temptation to say *anything at all* rather than sit quietly.
I guess, but there are platitudes that aren't quite so cruel. "I'm so sorry," for instance. Even the old "let me know if there's anything I can do to help" sucks on many levels but doesn't imply that their tragedy was a good thing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's ignorance (delusion) and fear.

Yes. It's such a cruel way of forcing a person's own denial or non-acceptance or non-acknowledgement onto another person. A person saying these things is picking up the burden and labor of acknowledgement, throwing it at a person already in pain, and saying, "Your pain is not worth acknowledging because for whatever reason I want to deny it/I don't want to see."

In a way, sometimes Person A saying that to Person B is not there to acknowledge Person B's grief/sorry/loss/pain but to make it about Person A.
posted by barchan at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


So what are your thoughts on theodicy, Eyebrows McGee?
posted by clockzero at 2:53 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.

In that nothingness, they did everything.

I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.

Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.
Being with is sometimes everything.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:53 PM on December 15, 2015 [28 favorites]


also worthy of a poke in the eye, imho: "onward and upward!"

i'm like - you're kidding, right?
posted by fingers_of_fire at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think everything has to happen for a reason, but I've made a conscious (and personal) decision that if good or bad events eventually lead me to a fantastic outcome, I will take time to celebrate every experience that brought me there and made me who I am.

It's been part of a lot of positive life changes and much more feeling that I have agency over my own life.

I would never put this on someone else who had something awful happen. Or anyone really. I guess if they asked me... but I would be very careful. Probably not, actually, unless it was close family or a significant other. It's personal. But then again, I'm not an asshole who comments on people's personal appearance, or talks down to them or questions whatever it is they're doing specifically or in general.

Basically, don't tell another person how to take life events or try to find the silver lining for them. Just shut up.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


also worthy of a poke in the eye, imho: "onward and upward!"

i'm like - you're kidding, right?


Excelsior!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


Hm, I was just having a discussion the other day with my beloved about the stupidity of "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" (another platitude that should be expunged from the face of the earth) and came across this post on What doesn't kill you makes you weaker. It had some very interesting thoughts in there about how we try to make meaning out of things, try to construct stories that have happy endings or at least make things happen for reasons because the truth - shit is random - is so incomprehensible.

Thanks for the link; apart from the really awkward plug it was a great article and gives me some ideas about how to respond to people who trot out that and other excessively positive lines.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:03 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


clockzero: "So what are your thoughts on theodicy, Eyebrows McGee?"

Lengthy, but they basically boil down to "It's a mystery."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:07 PM on December 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


Have you considered Sithrak? Even now Sithrak oils the spit. He has the answers. Maybe you're a GWOK? You should tell your friends!
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:07 PM on December 15, 2015 [27 favorites]


Earlier this month, after a semi rig slid sideways on a road of black ice and sandwiched me against my delivery van that I was standing next to having been stopped for nearly an hour at that point, and broke 5 or 6 of my ribs and I've been out of work for nearly 2 weeks, my mother kept saying things like "Well, I always pray for your safety and I know God was keeping you safe". After the third time of her saying that to me in as many days and phone calls, I finally was fed up and said "Look, if God was keeping me safe, that truck never would have hit me in the first place".

Her response was, "God doesn't promise that bad things won't happen..."

It's amazing how people actually believe these things on this kind of level.
posted by hippybear at 3:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [45 favorites]


Also, I've never been able to say anything to someone who has had a huge loss. I don't want to say I'm sorry, or I'm here for you, or I feel your pain. I've often wondered if that was okay. I've felt a lot of shame over my inability to voice the rote stuff I hear other people saying.

I guess it is okay? I couldn't express the enormity of anything.

I tend to just stay by them, nod and look sad (I am). Give them a hug if they want.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


The daughter of a good friend of mine got a brain tumor and was successfully treated. Three years later, she got a second brain tumor and was again successfully treated (although she had brain damage after the second one). And then the daughter was killed in a car accident at age 11.

Nine months after her daughter was killed, someone who was studying to become an Episcopal priest gave a sermon in our church, the point of which was "everything happens for a reason." My friend walked out of the church and into the parking lot and started screaming. Even with all the doors closed, you could hear her like she was standing next to you. Most of the rest of us streamed out to the parking lot and clustered around her in the biggest group hug I've ever been a part of. It was 20 minutes before she stopped screaming, and she ended up on a 72-hour hold. She told me later that it was one thing to hear that from casual acquaintances and well-meaning neighbors. But to hear it from the pulpit, in the one place she had been able to find solace, was too much.
posted by OrangeDisk at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [189 favorites]


Technically, everything happens for a reason, and it all boils down to physics.

But some of it happens around the Planck length and/or happens due to quantum effects which isn't physics as the average person comprehends it. And quantum events really quite literally don't happen for a reason, they hardly even happen at all, we have to measure them in bulk.

Who knew that Joseph Stalin was a closet physicist?
posted by GuyZero at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


I recently saw a coworker who has had a difficult year post on Facebook, saying she had been sexually abused as a child because she chose it to happen.

It's a way of giving yourself agency in a situation where you had none. If you chose the abuse, you had power. If you had power then, you could stop similarly terrible things from happening again now. . Powerlessness is one of the hardest things to accept.
posted by frumiousb at 3:17 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


Off to share this on FB where it will no doubt piss off some people.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:22 PM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


That's it exactly, I think, frumiousb. Powerlessness is terrifying. And not an adaptive idea in most situations (even given that it's true).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:24 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


People loved saying this to me through various traumas. I am a very non-religious person. I would hear these words, and think of them in non-religious terms, for the most part. That's not a good thing, as I am constantly fighting depression - and in the search for a reason, I'd often end up blaming myself more often than not.

Relatively benign example:
- My relationships all fall apart. Reason: I don't deserve a good relationship because I'm a horrible and unredeemable person.
Less benign example:
- Literally everything in my life is falling apart. Reason: The world is trying to prove to me that I should no longer be part of it.

Once you start playing that sort of game, the reasons range from things like "the universe is a cold, heartless place that is trying to kill you at every moment" at best, to things like "I am being punished for the sins of my past" or "this is a hell that there is only one escape from" - and the search for a reason becomes something that can send you much, much further into the depths, and something extremely destructive.

One of the most healthy changes in me was to accept that sometimes, there isn't a reason. It hasn't been easy getting there - I'm fortunate to have done so, and I still often forget it.

This is one of the most toxic things you can say to someone.
posted by MysticMCJ at 3:24 PM on December 15, 2015 [29 favorites]


This is a really great post. And at the same time, there are people who really like to hear stuff like, "I'm sure he is watching over you right now." My mother is one of those folks. You have to really know that a person wants to hear something like that to say it. Don't say it to anyone else.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:27 PM on December 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


My "favorite" is God did answer your prayer; He said No.
posted by themanwho at 3:28 PM on December 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


But to hear it from the pulpit, in the one place she had been able to find solace, was too much.

But isn't that the central message (and appeal) of religion? That's supposed to be the comfort, I thought. That our pain falls under a benign order.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:29 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was hit by a car. I'll spare you the gory details. While I was in the hospital for over three months, I can't once recall anyone saying "Everything happens for a reason." If anyone did, they were saved from screaming abuse because I was on morphine and demerol constantly.
posted by Splunge at 3:29 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I chose it" is a version of "rules to avoid being raped" - it's all about trying to convince yourself/others that there is a way to avoid it as well. It's got a side effect, namely blaming the victim, but it can feel empowering at some level.

I've been trying to convince people I know about the value of 'being with'. It's hard, there's this focus on doing. Even if I'm sitting with recently bereaved children who have lost their mother, a man who has lost the love of his life, there's this idea to DO, to 'get back to normal', or to 'take your mind off it'. All of which just leaves you, in the dark of the night, dealing with whatever it is that got sidetracked and jammed down in the normal and the activities.

Even just being with someone, without trauma and grief, has benefits. I said to a friend the other day that I wished they were with me. Not to do anything differently, just to sit in the same room staring at our screens and working, but there's a comfort in being in the presence of someone who loves you that is disrupted by doing stuff with the same person.

That said, I am an introvert and pretty low-key. But yeah, 'for a reason' implies rationality, not randomness. It's ugly and awful.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:30 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Are there ways to find "healing" amidst devastation? Yes. Can one be "transformed" by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.


This is one of those things were you either get it, or you don't. And most people that get it have had it smacked onto them by life itself.

Almost two years ago I lost my baby after three months in the NICU. Then the platitudes came. Everything happens for a reason. God only gives the toughest battles to the toughest warriors. Your baby is an angel watching over you. You have been blessed. "Blessed? What the actual fuck?" I wanted to tell them. "How come you get to be blessed with a healthy baby, and I get to be blessed with the awesome lesson of life teaching me to toughen up or else?"

Actually, it turns out I really did luck out when my mom convinced me to see a Grief Therapist she found. Took her two week of convincing me and I finally agreed. My first visit was a week before my baby died. I kept going and it was fucking hard. She had a lot of empathy and zero platitudes. She had been in the NICU with two of her babies herself. She got it. She let me bitch and cry and get really angry at life, God, myself, even my dead baby. She gave me really hard homework which I procrastinated on but eventually got to. It gave me migranes and left me exhausted for days at a time. We didn't avoid grief, we jumped into it sort of like jumping into an ice-cold pool. I found out that the only way to get through grieving was by actually permitting grief to take over me and then slowly work it out of my system.

I have been seeing my therapist for 20 months now. I stopped crying in my car and in the shower about a year ago. I stopped feeling angry at everything and everyone around the same time. Last summer another kind soul saw the grief in me still and helped me see I was avoiding being happy with my husband and toddler by still carrying my baby everywhere. I learned to let him go. Not the memory or the love or the connection, just the thought of trying to keep him with me in that please stay with us way. I had to let him rest in peace.

Today I had the last session before the holidays with my therapist. We have been discussing all sorts of issues now for a while, not just grief-related things. She told me she was so proud of how far I'd come, and how I was a different person now. She said she was proud of herself for convincing me to stay that first session and to come back the next week. She broke down crying and was embarrassed because she said she'd never cried with any other patient before, but she got it. She GOT It. Yeah, I'm a better person now and whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger and all that shit, but I didn't get here avoiding the pain. I got here because I let it take over me and then cleaned it out with tears and headaches and heartaches and a lot of hard work. And because someone who GOT IT let me go through a whole box of tissues every damn session.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 3:34 PM on December 15, 2015 [218 favorites]


But anyone who says "G-d doesn't give anyone more than they can handle" will get immediately flamebroiled.

On a pregnancy loss board I belong to, someone with multiple losses mentioned their hatred of this particular platitude. Someone else suggested replying, "Oh, so I guess you're saying, if I were a weaker person, all my babies wouldn't have died?"

I really liked this post, thank you. Not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, random shitty things happen and the hard truth is, they have no greater meaning and are not part of any grand plan.

I feel like when people say "Everything happens for a reason!" it implies I ought to be grateful I had this horrible experience because it provided me with an opportunity to build my character. Thanks, I can think of a lot of other ways I'd rather achieve personal growth.

On preview: big hugs, CrazyLemonade.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:38 PM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


That was a wonderful article, thank you for posting it.

I hate platitudes in general. Like, how are you even supposed to react when someone says something like this to you? "Wow, thank you. I feel so much better now that you've said something completely generic to me that aren't even your own words". "Everything happens for a reason" is a particularly egregious example.

But anyone who says "G-d doesn't give anyone more than they can handle" will get immediately flamebroiled.

Ok, maybe this one is worse. As the parent of an autistic child, you get pretty used to hearing this one in its many variations. It almost always seems to translate to, "But thank heavens he gave it to you to handle and not me".
posted by The Gooch at 3:39 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


Exactly one person told me everything happens for a reason, and it was in response to this article. Maybe there's a point at which the weight of all the loss is enough that people stop trying to comfort you in this way. Or they've seen enough of your fury to be slightly in awe of you and don't want to risk your wrath. Mostly, I think, people have no idea what to do with grief, and they say whatever comes to mind because they just want it to stop. They think if they don't accept that sometimes things get *worse* they willbe soared your fate. They're scared of the fragility that's life, and they cling to the platitudes because your grief scares the ever-living fuck out of them. Because sitting with you in your loss admits it into their life, and they want to turn away.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:40 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


@cotton dress sock -- No. I can't speak to all religions, of course. But the central message of my religion is love and relationship, to God and one another. It's not that god is a vindictive motherfucker who's "benign order" is reliant on pain.
posted by OrangeDisk at 3:40 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


That was a clunky plug.

Pangloss blue.
posted by Bromius at 3:40 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thanks for the post... it's powerful and honest...

I'm pretty sure that 99% of us who are in the fraternity/sorority of parents who lost children agree with everything written in that post, the other 1% will probably, eventually, come to that agreement as well.

"If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, you can let them go."

I had an aunt that, when discussing how she was dealing with the death of her husband said "The hardest thing is when someone sees you walking towards them on the sidewalk in town and they cross the street because they don't know how to interact with your grief". I've never forgotten that statement.

To all that were moved by this because it touched something deep, I wish you peace.
posted by HuronBob at 3:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [28 favorites]


Yes! That whole god only gives us what we can handle is fucking rage inducing. I had it said by the pastor at my brother's funeral. He killed himself. I remember being 12 and thinking so you're saying my brother failed??? Cause obviously he wasn't handling what God gave him fucking good enough if he shot himself?

My uncle's memorial was today and thankfully there was none of these platitudes. Just food and being with the family and sorry for your loss and people showing up to help.
posted by kanata at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


But isn't that the central message (and appeal) of religion? That's supposed to be the comfort, I thought. That our pain falls under a benign order.

Well, it depends on what you mean by that last line. I think it's fair to say that a central claim (of Christianity, at least) is that God will eventually set everything right, but most forms of Christianity see plenty of room for random bad luck and individual bad deeds and self-destructive behavior to bring pain into our lives in the meantime. Sure, there are some religious leaders who will say God has planned absolutely everything, including the bad stuff that happens, but they are a minority. Most folks who really think about it for more than three seconds realize that it is nonsensical to claim that God wants people to be sober and use good judgment, and that he also planned for that driver to get drunk and send you to the hospital. A God who works against his own desires goes beyond "mysterious ways" into "self-contradiction."

I don't want to turn this thread too far into a discussion of how religious traditions deal with this, except to say that "everything happens for a reason" or "God planned this" might be said by a majority of people in the pews, but it makes most of their pastors wince to hear it. That's the kind of nonsense we are trying to correct. Longer thoughts from me in this similar thread here, for those who want them.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2015 [30 favorites]


"Everything happens for a reason" is the pseudo-secular version "God has a plan for us all" or "God moves in mysterious ways."

And, as such, I respond to it with equal derision.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:50 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Shit Happens
posted by Postroad at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Because I'm getting past the point where I like to fight with randoms whenever someone says "everything happens for a reason" to me I just kinda go along with it because like, yeah man I believe there's causality at the scale we lead our lives.

There was stuff, and then because of it being configured how it was, things happened within a narrow range of possibilities available from that configuration. Yeah, sure, everything happens for a reason -- a whole lot of reasons, more reasons than we'll ever completely know.

I guess my point is, as I see it, everything does happen for reasons but we shouldn't read too much into it.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:57 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


the central message of my religion is love and relationship, to God and one another

I prefer that idea, OrangeDisk. I had a patchy education in religion (in a couple of versions of Christianity) - I probably did hear that message, but my takeaway key words were "redemption" and "order". (A few others, but those are the relevant ones, here.) Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Pater Aletheias. I've heard the "mysterious ways" explanation most often… (it's been unsatisfying, to me…)

Religion aside, in our diversity and secularism and atomism (and I think in our cultural insistence on agency and control, and positivity, or at least emotional neutrality), there isn't a common language for grief, or established ways to help each other with loss; no useful techniques for grieving. I'm one generation away from people who permit themselves to express the gravity of loss - to weep, wear black, light candles in front of photographs of loved ones lost, so that they can tend their memories… it's not a way of doing things that's comfortable for me, but helpful, I think, to those for whom it is.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:58 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Well, I always pray for your safety and I know God was keeping you safe".

Oh yeah, all the versions of "God was really watching over me/you/whoever!" as an explanation of how someone lucked out or why something wasn't worse or how great it is that a terrible thing happened to the person next to you rather than you, is even more rage-inducing for me than "everything happens for a reason." Because at least the latter isn't loaded with fucking passive-aggressive special-snowflakey narcissism.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


After I lost my daughter I listened to the audiobook of the horrendously-titled When Bad Things Happen To Good People and there is quite a nice bit in there about how for the author it boiled down to God can be omniscient, omnipotent, loving...pick two only. I wasn't precisely wrapped up on worrying about God at the time but I did appreciated how the author, who had a child with a terminal condition, basically said before he had that experience he had said those platitudes and eventually was pretty ashamed that he hadn't put it together like that prior to his own experience.

I do think it's something you either get or you don't, what a lousy thing that is to say along with all the ones mentioned above. But it would be nice if we just made it socially unacceptable to say anyway. Along with Jesus needed another little angel in heaven and "I couldn't live if that happened to me" or similar.

I wish I could sit with everyone in this thread silently a bit, especially fellow NICU loss moms.

For me "I'm sorry" or "this sucks" worked fine.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [19 favorites]


My enraged answer to this, and recall that I am a devout Catholic with two degrees in theology, is always to round on the person who just told me that "everything happens for a reason" and demand, "Really? So God had the SS slaughter millions of Jews FOR THE GREATER GOOD? God gives newborn babies cancer and forces them to suffer and die FOR THE MORAL EDIFICATION OF THEIR PARENTS? You believe in a fucked up God that I have no interest in."

EM, I respect the hell out of your contributions here, but I don't see how there's any other possible ominpotent, omniscient, benevolent God.

Newborn babies with cancer and millions of slaughtered Jews are facts, just another special feature in the buffet of suffering (and good stuff) life offers.

If there's an omnipotent God, that God is either unaware of the suffering, indifferent to it, or has a purpose to letting it go on. A benevolent God would need a greater-good type purpose for even not intervening.

If there's no such greater good possible, then I think that we're essentially saying there is no such God.

I guess there's some wiggle room in fine shades, where God might allow shit to go down but isn't actively causing it. When I can muster theistic belief, this is the place I tend to inhabit, hoping for a God that does quiet work to help things that Just Happen work together for good a la Romans 8:28. Sometimes I see a lot of strength in the atheist case here, though, and your statement I'm quoting seems to throw in with that side of things.
posted by namespan at 4:04 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


For me, the best way people helped me handle grief was to show up. They really didn't say anything in particular, other than the usual "I'm sorry" (and no, I don't get cross about that). People showed they cared by being near me (the same or similar wavelength to HuronBob's aunt--avoidance hurts).

But please, when you explain loss to kids so they can process grief, don't say "she's gone to live with the angels," because I may go to jail for assault.
posted by datawrangler at 4:05 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


The few times this platitude was offered to me, after a diagnosis of cancer of all things, it was meant optimistically, as if to say "perhaps your experience will have some lessons associated with it and it won't be all bad all the time".
Now I'm an avowed atheist, and as furious as i might have been to overhear the phrase offered to someone grieving, I chose to simply accept any and all thoughts on my behalf as positive, and move on.
On the whole, I just view these kinds of rationalizations as symptoms of folks who are not, at that moment, capable of handling trouble themselves. Perhaps a lifetime of tragedy has made them fatalistic, perhaps they have just never bothered to look for deeper explanation for things; perhaps they've never questioned their belief system. More sad for them than for me.
I am less likely to confront then person offering the phrase (if not directed to me) than I am to offer real support or comfort to the aggrieved.
Things happen, if 'reasons' are what you need to make sense of things, best keep that to yourself.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:05 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


You are just a cellular autonoma with an illusion of self awareness and choice. It all happens as a result of an emergent phenomena in a complex and chaotic system outside your control. Your emotional response is just an evolutionary adaptation that has previously been useful for intergenerational genetic transmission.
posted by humanfont at 4:09 PM on December 15, 2015 [26 favorites]


At the 2014 Festival of Faith & Writing, I participated in what's called a "festival circle," a small group of people with a shared concern who meet a couple of times over a meal. The one I chose was for people who'd been harmed by their church community; I'd recently left my Quaker meeting, so it felt relevant to me. The common thread in the group was churches failing people who experienced a tragic loss, and the forms varied from withdrawing from the person because of not knowing what to say, to saying these kinds of "everything happens for a reason" sorts of hurtful faux-comfort expressions, to one woman whose church did not allow room for grief because dying and going to heaven was such an occasion for joy. So when her husband died suddenly at a fairly young age, the members of her church would not allow her to express grief in their presence. It was really something.

On the new age end of things, I did once know a woman who believed that we chose the lives we would live. So, a person who is abused in childhood chose, before birth, to experience that. Maybe to work something out karmically, or in the way that we might choose to watch a horror movie or read a really sad book. When we were adopting and the woman we had matched with chose to parent, someone who'd recently read The Secret told me it happened because I let myself imagine it too much.

These are often defense mechanisms, a way for people to cope with the reality of things that are out of our control. But they become a way to be cruel to people who are suffering.

There is a thing that is true, which is that sometimes people who've experienced a loss or setback are able to make something positive out of it. My partner, for instance, lost both his parents when he was just 25, and he has sometimes been able to use that experience to give other people facing the loss of a parent compassion and understanding. That doesn't mean his parents died young so that he could give compassion and understanding. It's just that he was able to make that much good out of a very crappy situation.
posted by not that girl at 4:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [18 favorites]


"But to hear it from the pulpit, in the one place she had been able to find solace, was too much."

This person had an appallingly bad preaching professor to even THINK of giving such a moronic sermon.

And yeah, people have hit on some of the religion questions already; I would also add that there are entire books of the Bible that are just "people pissed at God" and there's a traditional division of Christian prayers into 7 types -- like praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, lamentation, etc. -- and one of the types is basically a fancy word for praying "I HATE YOU GOD YOU'RE A DICKHEAD AND YOUR UNIVERSE SUCKS BALLS." Some Jews in Auschwitz threw stones at the sky, stoning God for failing to keep his Covenant with them. Religion isn't JUST the smiley happy empty platitudes that fit on bumper stickers that pop-culture American Christianity would have you believe.

" but I don't see how there's any other possible ominpotent, omniscient, benevolent God. "

I refer you to Luther on Free Will as a starting point that's passably familiar to English-speaking Christians as one attempt to solve this problem. But really there's almost 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian wrestling with this problem that you could work your way through; much smarter people than I have spent entire lifetimes working through the implications of this question. If you can't buy it, that's fine and fair, I'm not anybody's thought police or evangelist. But don't hand-wave away 5,000 years of thought on a superficial, intuitive idea about the debate.

(There are other Christians on metafilter who are smarter about theodicy than I am and I'll let them take any further questions, because for one thing I took my graduate theodicy course with a German Lutheran and had to spend most of the semester being annoyed about his appalling misuse of Thomas Aquinas, and also writing my papers about Buffy the Vampire Slayer's theodicy just to irritate him. It's not my area, ergo I come down on the side of "It's a mystery" because the truth is after all those years, that's really the best I've got. I can natter on about it for a couple of hours, but it's just giving you the history of the debate and drawing out interesting bits; in the end all I've got is "it's a mystery.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:13 PM on December 15, 2015 [53 favorites]


My first wife's college roommate was killed in a horrendous car crash with a semi along with her husband and two small children. We went to the quadrupedal funeral in the Methodist church in the little Pennsylvania town where they all grew up and the minister pulled out the old "this is all part of God's great plan" and I almost got up and stormed out but my wife held me back.
posted by octothorpe at 4:15 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


At Zen Hospice, there are five precepts for volunteer caregivers. (I've mentioned them before but I think they're worth mentioning again).

(remember these are for volunteer caregivers, they are not for hospice residents or for family members)

Taking these precepts to heart has helped me to be a much more empathetic and less intrusive witness and, occasionally, caregiver.

They are:

Don't wait. (Don't put anything off, but especially saying important things like "I love you.")

Accept everything, push away nothing (this includes all of the anger and pain and fear and guilt and blame that the residents and family have as well as all of the things we like, such as love and peace and acceptance).

Find a place of stillness in the middle of everything. (a place of stillness in you, a place of calm where all of the emotions in the room can exist without being pushed away or latched onto. Frank once memorably said, "Imagine if you're the only person in the room other than the resident who is accepting of the fact that they are dying. That can help someone so much.")

Cultivate "don't know" mind. (this is a good one if you're EVER tempted to try to attach meaning or purpose to anything. It's good to practice saying: I don't know why.)

Bring your whole self to the experience. (If you are inauthentic in any way, residents and family will see through you immediately and rightfully resent you for it. And if you hold anything back, you will be poorer for it.)
posted by janey47 at 4:16 PM on December 15, 2015 [90 favorites]


Cultivate "don't know" mind. (this is a good one if you're EVER tempted to try to attach meaning or purpose to anything. It's good to practice saying: I don't know why.)

I think this is especially useful and important.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:18 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


The other day, my 21-year-old was upset about something, and my very sensitive and kind 11-year-old was fretting. He said, "I want to help them feel better but I don't know what to say!" I said, "Sometimes all you can do is sit with someone while they're sad." Doing my bit to help the next generation not suck.

I would also add that there are entire books of the Bible that are just "people pissed at God" and there's a traditional division of Christian prayers into 7 types -- like praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, lamentation, etc. -- and one of the types is basically a fancy word for praying "I HATE YOU GOD YOU'RE A DICKHEAD AND YOUR UNIVERSE SUCKS BALLS."

This is a helpful reminder. Sometimes things just suck.
posted by not that girl at 4:21 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


I will say that one of the more powerful moments in class this term happened when one of my students compared most of the theodicy we had been discussing to some classic "blaming the victim" tropes, especially those that get infuriatingly trotted out around sexual assault.

Real pin-drop moment, that.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 4:28 PM on December 15, 2015 [22 favorites]


I've found that the easiest way to wrap your head around the problem of theodicy is to imagine yourself engaged in some small self-destructive habit, like smoking or drinking or picking at a hangnail. You love your body! You ARE your body! Your plan for your body involves health and longevity and wholeness! But yeah, those lung/brain/skin cells you just killed? Uh, whatever? Feel BAD for them? Huh? Yeah, sure, your cells just suffered and died, you guess, and the cells around them are stressed and struggling to make up for the loss, but look, they're cells, come on. Big picture time.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:30 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


OK, so, one of the benefits of being an athiest is that I do think certain things happen for reasons. Like, for example, the reason Richard Dear shot up that Planned Parenthood is that he listened to too much Right Wing radio and the reason all those Earthquakes are happening in Oklahomo is because of fracking or the reason that the water in Flint, Michigan is poisoning everyone is because of gross governmental mismanagement.

So everything does happen for a reason, and the useful thing about being reminded of this is you can determine if that reason demands that you take legal action against Richard Dear, oil companies or the government of Michigan. Or if you just have to say "shit, nobody is really at fault and it just fucking sucks that this awful thing happened."

My advice is to respond to the "Everything Happens For A Reason" misguided solace with a statement like "and that reason is that there's no cure for cancer but that doesn't really make me feel better" or "and that reason is that Republicans fight against clean air and water resolutions so we should vote in politicians who will fight for clean air and water - but those Republicans are going to have to live with the knowledge that they poisoned those children until they die."
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:33 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


What do you learned folks think of C.S. Lewis? I read A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain at one point when I was having a really rough time, but I don't think I had enough familiarity with the broader theological context to really get as much out of them as I could have. I can say, in retrospect, that my takeaway was "it's a mystery," but you could just as easily chalk that up to poor reading skills, I suppose.
posted by teponaztli at 4:35 PM on December 15, 2015


So everything does happen for a reason, and the useful thing about being reminded of this is you can determine if that reason demands that you take legal action against Richard Dear, oil companies or the government of Michigan.

Lots of things happen for no real reason though. Sure, you may lose your family in a car crash because of [reason], but there's no real reason it happened to your family rather than the family traveling behind you. It was fucking bad luck.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:38 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, but even car crashes happen for reasons (hit a slick spot in the road, driver got distracted for a moment, engine failure). Its just that sometimes those reasons are shitty. There's no greater plan so if by "for a reason" they mean "so something better will happen in the future," they're dead wrong. If by "for a reason," they mean "there is an explanation behind what happened," they're right. However, I think people mean the former and not the latter, because the latter isn't even remotely comforting.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:40 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Obviously people know how bad things happen, but that's not even remotely what anyone is talking about here.
posted by teponaztli at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2015 [18 favorites]


but look, they're cells, come on. Big picture time.

In 1984, O'Brien makes that exact same analogy, except that individuals are the cells of the Party, instead of God. To me, that attitude toward people is one of English literature's great examples of pure and total evil.

But if it works for you as an answer to theodicy, then I guess that's great. We live in a pluralistic society.
posted by officer_fred at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


If something bad happened to you today...

It sucked.
It wasn't fair.
You didn't deserve it.
posted by gregglind at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [18 favorites]


But don't hand-wave away 5,000 years of thought on a superficial, intuitive idea about the debate.

I respect scholarship, and I do respect faith… (I tried to get there, for a time; failed. My sense is that people for whom mystery is acceptable - at least for some of those I've talked to, who are able to rest on it - also have a subjective feeling of faith that allows them to tolerate inconsistency and see it as paradox). But ultimately - after the granular explorations, elaborations, refinements - it's all (theodicy, the trinity [or not, as the case may be], redemption) got to somehow be made graspable to ordinary people, by argument, story, theatre, feeling… and if it can't be made to be so, I think that's sort of a problem.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:51 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


(For the people for whom it's a problem, I mean.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:54 PM on December 15, 2015


My "favorite" is God did answer your prayer; He said No.
posted by themanwho at 3:28 PM on December 15 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [Flagged]

When people say this, it gets on my last nerve.

I found that giving up the idea that things 'happen for a reason' or that life has some special meaning were both very healthy for me at least.

It's a waste of time looking for meaning or reason in life's events.
In the case of happy events, you think you are being rewarded. In the case of less happy events you feel punished or tried.

You have to sometimes watch really terrible people get away with absolutely horrible behavior.

That is a huge pile of salt in very deep wounds.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:59 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


So so unbelievably glad to see the rightful hate that this crap finally deserves. I remember in the 80s, at the height of AIDS, an idiot New Age professor was completely bungling an interpretation of Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor", which attacked the idea of diseases having 'meaning'. It's doubtful he read the book because he took the opposite line, that diseases do have meaning and spiritual purpose. My prof was implying that AIDS's meaning was to restore monogamy because sleazy 60s and 70s or whatever. I was apoplectic; I couldn't speak I was so filled with rage and contempt. That kind of crap floated around in those new agey Louise Hay days. Fuck that smug, self-serving idiocy so hard.

My motto became "Everything happens for a reason- it's just that some of those reasons aren't very good ones". Like Joey Michaels said above. Because yeah, in terms of basic causality, sure, there are reasons, like your immune system couldn't handle the pathogen or carcinogen, but that doesn't make them meaningful. Sanctimonious dolts like my teacher or Louise Hay like to assign divine purpose to neutral physical actions, like car crashes and pathogens so that they can feel a sense of control in the face of random brutalities and pain, and also because they wish to sound wise in the face of the inexplicable and the unfair. (Perhaps they have no idea how pompous and smug they are.) The fact that random things happen is exactly why we should be compassionate, because life deals out so many cruel whims out of the blue.

Also glad to see a religious person above refute this. Although I'm atheist, even the Book of Job has God coming down on people who claim to know why Job suffered by saying "Who are you? Did you carve out the mountains or the seas?" etc etc. God basically whipped their know-it-all asses.

(Pardon for any redundancies from not properly following the thread- this topic just necessitated a response for me before fixing dinner.) Thank you so much for this post. Kill this toxic idea once and for all.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 5:06 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


A couple of years back, janey47 wrote this powerful reminder: "Stop using words." I think about that a lot, when I am with someone in grief or pain.

As a parent, and as a friend, I keep returning to this brief essay, "When a Child is Inconsolable: Stay Near." It reads, in part:
But there is another cry that is hard for us to understand, and often there seems to be no way to help—a cry of woe, sobbing inconsolably, seemingly flooded with grief. ... Somehow it feels as though what we ask for in that inconsolable state is the acknowledgment that, ‘yes, it is unfixable. No, nothing could be worse than this.’ ... It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state. ... But at the moment of inconsolability all we can do is to stay near, so that the child knows that we care, and when the crying is finished, we can be together.
Stop using words. Stay near. Be with.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [31 favorites]


(Ach sorry - I'm not asking you to account for mystery, Eyebrows! By "people for whom it's a problem" I mean religious organizations, and individuals looking for explanations. Sorry, I think I accidentally suggested otherwise, didn't mean to.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:15 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


We may indeed all be nothing more or less than meat robots. Self may be an illusion. Free will may be an illusion. But suffering is real. I've encountered people who in the midst of a terrible tragedy said 'I need to pray', and I'm like ok you do what you need to do. If praying means you spend quiet time in the company of people who care about you then prayer it is. I think the Problem Of Evil is an interesting field of study and a great path to atheism, but it would be the height of indecency to try shoving a grieving person down that path.
posted by um at 5:46 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


Memory, pattern recognition and emotion are hard wired. It is very difficult for the survivor to escape the search for a reason. Sometines it is easier to end the search by laying on the master plan of god and then engaging in traditional rituals. Sometimes it just makes us feel more guilty.
posted by humanfont at 5:46 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Along the same lines, I hatehatehate when people talk about karma, because if you're going to use it to explain bad shit happening to bad people, or good shit happening to good people, then how do you explain bad shit happening to good people??
posted by amro at 5:58 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


When each of my parents died, people told me shit like this, and for whatever reason I didn't feel rage, because it was such obvious bullshit that I couldn't take it seriously. Death has a way of making clear how fake that kind of talk is.

I actually only felt mad when my sister-in-law, who was at my mom's bedside when she died (I wasn't there soon enough), said my mom smiled at the end, because she must have seen Heaven! I had no response to that. Mom was in a lot of pain and very heavily medicated, if she grimaced or even smiled, it's highly likely that she wasn't doing it on purpose, and just, ugh. It was a sad and too-early death. Just let it be that. If there is a heaven, I'm sure she's there. If there's not, she's not suffering anymore. None of that makes her death any better. She should have had more time, and that's a fucking shame, regardless of whether she's enjoying her afterlife now.
posted by emjaybee at 6:00 PM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


I also tend to counter the "everything happens for a reason" response with brutal honesty about the "everything" that's being dismissed. It's probably unkind, but damn if doesn't shut careless people down fast.

(I come from a family rife with addiction & abuse - I've got a lot of "everything" and don't really give a shit about the "reasons")
posted by brain.eat.brain at 6:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


People say those things for their own benefit, not that of the grieving person. If you just want something to say in that moment when you've just heard something awful has happened to someone else, say "I'm sorry" or "That's terrible". There's nothing you can say that will fix it or immediately make them feel better, so don't try. They're probably not interested in your religious, philosophical, or even practical ideas about why this happened. If they are, they can ask you.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:04 PM on December 15, 2015 [21 favorites]


As far as I can see life comes with grief. There is no way around actually feeling it. Even if you decline to engage- it will come get you ,rendering you red faced,teary eyed and incapable of speaking. It is the price you pay for living. There is no "reason" other than that.


When well intentioned people tell you otherwise- they are just barking at the moon.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 6:05 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


This thread needs a link to The Reasons That Everything Happens For, In Order at The Toast. Samples:
5. Unhappy people behave badly towards others.
6. Thermodynamics, probably.
11. Something about cell division.
posted by OnceUponATime at 6:10 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


humanfont - yeah, I'm with you… my tactic is, sort of, selective memory, selective forgetting, and I suppose, trying to endure unselective pain. I think a very common and rational response to the idea that "there is no reason" (or "purpose", there are causes) is "hold on to what you have", and "make the best of it". I have medium success with this, depending on all kinds of things.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:22 PM on December 15, 2015


Jumping back in on the theology question For Posterity I guess...there's a book called God: A Biography that attempts to interpret the Bible as if it were a summary of God's life experience, so to speak, and if I remember right, it basically posits that after a certain point God is not only bound by his own word but that he creates man in his image, like a mirror, because he can't see himself and has no one greater than himself to consult...so for example he's remote and vengeful and on the side of the powerful until a prayerful human calls him merciful and then he's like oh! I'm merciful! And only after that in the Bible is he merciful. Until eventually via the crucifixion he is bound into his own powerlessness.

I have no idea if this has merit but I will say that in my grief I have preferred to see the possibility of a God who is just as sad and upset and helpless about my loss and various other things in my life as I am, because to me the people who can be just that are the closest thing to divine love in my life as I can get.

Which is to say that I really like in this essay how he says don't give advice, and I feel that way about religion too, maybe there are no good answers to Why This Terrible Loss because there actually are no answers other than yes, physics, squashed cord, no oxygen, no oxygen, brain and organ damage leading to death days later...but then why that position, that nurse, that hospital...etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:24 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


When my father in law passed away a few years ago, the parish priest looked into the pews and announced that everyone who was weeping was being disrespectful to FIL's memory, that we should be joyful he was in heaven. Then to make sure we all got it, he said it again later in his sermon, the overall theme of which was, "Your beloved father/friend/uncle died so he could be happy in heaven." Such an asshole, I told him when it was my turn for him to clasp hands with family members after the service and asked if his intended strategy was to replace grief with incandescent rage because if so, he had done a fine job of it.

I'm very grateful that no one gave me the reasons line when my father passed away last May. Perhaps due to his age, at 93 there's little mystery why someone might die. However, it was striking how many people immediately followed their condolences with tales of their own loss. At first it felt a bit like I was being put on the spot to comfort them while grappling with my own grief but I decided the best way to interpret it was as a form of commiseration, "I feel your loss because I have lost too" and hey, they probably miss my dad too, it's not like I'm in competition for the gold medal in Grieving Over My Dad.

So, I guess in summary: err on the side of shutty up.
posted by jamaro at 6:34 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Along the same lines, I hatehatehate when people talk about karma, because if you're going to use it to explain bad shit happening to bad people, or good shit happening to good people, then how do you explain bad shit happening to good people??

Many versions of how karma works have it accounting for stuff that occurred in previous lives. Sure it's based on woo unsound premises, but it doesn't lack for an explanation of "bad shit happening to good people."
posted by juv3nal at 6:44 PM on December 15, 2015


"Everything happens for a reason" is shorthand for "I recognise something both irreversible and damaging happened. I wish it hadn't, but that wish isn't going to reverse what happened. An open discussion about what happened isn't going to resolve matters in any different way. Therefore, I'll attribute it to some force greater than the both of us, and we can exist a place of recognition of your difficult without moving to a place of overt discomfort."

Two thoughts on grief:

1) our capacity to grieve is not endless.

There was a woman in a workshop whose guest said,"when I lost my child last year, you seemed callous and removed. You didn't comfort me, or grieve with me."

The woman replied, "I have a bucket within me filled with so much pain and regret, that if let any more pain in, it will overflow and destroy me. You had people helping you.. I apologise I could not -- and will not -- be one of them."

The discussion continued that while grief is a social emotion that requires expression, grief also runs its course. It has to, else we cannot move on. The greatest error would be either to 1) completely deny someone's loss or 2) constantly refer to it.

2) Most people probably don't say it as a rational argument -- as in there's some greater purpose or its part of god's plan. Even orthodox religious education discusses biblical history as stories, traditions, examples, and the like. "It's god's will" doesn't mean it's the will of God. It means that it's beyond one's present control -- or also importantly -- perceived to be beyond one's control.

If someone says, "everything happens for a reason," then reverse that and say "in order to move on, you must find meaning in life beyond what has happened," or perhaps "this has happened and it is a choice now how you allow it to define your life."

It's one of those socially neutral statements we use to help navigate the world.
posted by nickrussell at 6:52 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Except, Nick, the point of the linked article (and much of the ensuing discussion in this thread) is that the effects of such (at best) mindless banality in the face of serious grief is anything but "socially neutral." It's like you're advocating reading the room while failing to read the room.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 6:57 PM on December 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


It's one of those socially neutral statements we use to help navigate the world.

No, it's really not.

On a meaning level, it's offensive. My daughter lived four days in pain and confusion, she would never be able to swallow her own saliva and we had to decide to take her off life support. All of that created a rift in my personality, in my ability to do things joyfully in my life, to enjoy my subsequent children, and it impacted on my family and my spouse greatly. That did not happen to us for a reason. We did not choose to go on to have meaningful lives because of that or in spite of it...we went on to have meaningful lives because that is what we do and had she survived we would have done the same! Differently! But the same!

I mean on a personal level, yes, I just nodded and still care about those people that said that. So I get that they did not mean to be lousy.

But what we say to each other matters, and the fact is that even your muted idea of choice in the face of grief is a weak one. The idea that bad things happen for a reason (or good ones) is...offensive.

I chose to move on yes, but my choice was informed by years of therapy, the trappings of a middle-class life, a good job, and so on. I came very close to becoming an alcoholic, which given my family history is a real genetic possibility, and the reasons I didn't had very little to do with choice and very much to do with luck.

Also, people do vary but for me, mentioning my loss then, now, or ever is the opposite of offensive. It is not like I have forgotten it at any point! It is not like mentioning my daughter is awful or distracting. It is not. I think about her, seriously, despite her short little life, every day and not in some maudlin way...she is my child just like my surviving ones.

I hope you can listen to the experiences of people in this thread.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:04 PM on December 15, 2015 [42 favorites]


I read both the article and the the thread. I don't find socially-neutral to be mindlessly banal. While it is important for people to grieve with us, it is also important to recognise that people have the right not to grieve with us.

I can recognise your pain without becoming immersed in it. I can recognise that you are suffering, without identifying with your suffering itself. Similarly, I can become immersed in your pain with you. I can recognise your suffering, and identify with it.

Yet, you should not compel me to do that, nor expect that it is in either of our best interests that I do that out of a sense of duty. Part of emotional maturity must surely be the capacity to grieve with others, and another part must be the judgement of when that is appropriate.

We each have different roles in each other's lives. Some are there to grieve with you. Some are not there to grieve with you, but to give you a place beyond grief. Some are there to carry you through your pain, and some are there to remind you of life looks like without pain.

I liked the article very much, and the discussion here is insightful and I have read the thread twice. It's very good.

My point is that an individual person's need to grief must not compel another to grieve with them. Grief needs to be recognised, and there are different degrees to which to do that, and different mechanisms we can engage, for it is assuredly a nuanced process.
posted by nickrussell at 7:06 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The discussion continued that while grief is a social emotion that requires expression, grief also runs its course. It has to, else we cannot move on. The greatest error would be either to 1) completely deny someone's loss or 2) constantly refer to it.
Ok, again, we've got platitudes like "I'm so sorry for your loss" that cover that ground without implying that there was some hidden benefit to someone's inexplicable tragedy. If you need platitudes, there are better platitudes to go with. Also, it's not really other people's call how often grieving people should refer to their loss or when grief should have "run its course." (I don't think "run its course" is a good way of putting that, for what it's worth.) Non-asshole people try to take their cues from the person who is grieving, rather than imposing their own agenda on someone else.

I think that "everything happens for a reason" is basically a form of emotional cowardice. It's really hard to confront the fact that some things are just shit. There is no hidden benefit. There is no silver lining. There is nothing to say to make it better. That's difficult, and people run from what's difficult. Sometimes they have to run, because they are dealing with their own emotional pain, and someone else's pain would be too much for them to take. That's ok: sometimes you have to put on your own face-mask first. But I think there's virtue in creating an expectation that people will try to be there for members of their community who are suffering, even when that's difficult. And being there for grieving people usually means not offering the kind of platitude that makes you, who are not suffering, feel better and the receiver of your words, who is suffering, feel worse.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:09 PM on December 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


I ... am flummoxed by how you're (apparently) trying to make this about apparent demands on your finite reserves of grief, Nick.

I don't wish you ill, and I could just be misreading you. But I remain a bit confused. Bowing out now so as not to monopolize the mic, here.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 7:11 PM on December 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


But if it works for you as an answer to theodicy, then I guess that's great. We live in a pluralistic society.

Yeah, as a political philosophy, it's pretty monstrous.
posted by prize bull octorok at 7:14 PM on December 15, 2015


I think there are ways to recognize suffering without feeling compelled to share in it that involve not saying things that are, to some, philosophically or emotionally hurtful. And this is about one specific instance of how a phrase that might be considered all around as socially banal is actually hurtful in deep ways to some, if not many.
posted by hippybear at 7:14 PM on December 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


My point is that an individual person's need to grief must not compel another to grieve with them. Grief needs to be recognised, and there are different degrees to which to do that, and different mechanisms we can engage, for it is assuredly a nuanced process.

No one's asking you to grieve with them (unless you want to). They're asking you not to say something lousy and hurtful at a painful time. It's sort of like lecturing a poor person on the value of being anti-materialistic or not buying into the foodie movement because they can't afford spices.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:18 PM on December 15, 2015 [26 favorites]


I nearly lost a child last year and my mother really, really struggled. She needed it to make sense and she needed me to be a part of that process -- she needed to tell me her platitudes, and her miraculous stories of preemies surviving things, and all the other stuff, and she needed me to agree with it and approve it and talk it through with her in order to make it endurable. For her.

She stayed with us a lot during that time because she helped with our older children, and I'm incredibly grateful for how well she took care of them and how easy she made that hard time for them. But it was unbelievably difficult for me to come home from the hospital and have those conversations every day.

I'm religious. Watching what the doctors and nurses did in that place, feeling how kind they were to me and to my daughters, I thought, those are the hands of God. That is the mercy of God. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with any bullshit about me getting what I can handle, or God giving sick kids to extra special parents because we're just so special. No. A thousand times no.
posted by gerstle at 7:19 PM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


I will respond once more to the last post, and then leave this thread alone.

While you feel comfortable talking about your loss, what if I do not feel comfortable talking about it? What if I have my own loss that I am currently processing and cannot engage with your loss, either recent or past?

That does not mean I do not feel for you, rather it means that I cannot engage with your loss in any depth right now, for I am dealing with my own loss.

I do think there are times when social neutrality is acceptable, it has to be. We each do have limited emotional capacities. That's been proven with everything from willpower to positivity to optimism. Yes the resources are renewable, but they also are limited.

I'm not making it about the limitations of time to grieve, but it has to be acceptable to be socially neutral. That to me says more about the pain of the person, than the social mechanism itself. i am not arguing against grief or the recognition of grief. What I am saying is that we need a mechanism to choose to graciously opt-out of emotionally charged situations of we're not capable of dealing authentically with someone else's emotions.

There's a lot of loneliness in the world right now, brought on by everything from the division of labour to the iPhone. And just as we need to be reminded that we must engage emotionally in the lives of others, we also must be reminded that it's okay not to. And that's not a callous dickhead move. Sometimes it just means, "I know whew you are. That is painful, and I cannot go there with you. [because I don't have the capacity to do that right now]."
posted by nickrussell at 7:20 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Look Nick, it's this simple: Then don't say anything.

Plenty of people don't, or say I'm sorry, or hand over a plate of cookies and go on with their lives. It's not that hard. Insisting that you must say this thing that many people have said is hurtful because that is the only way not to be some fully engaged saint of a human being is a totally false binary set of possibilities.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:24 PM on December 15, 2015 [37 favorites]


The thing is, I don't think the "everything happens for a reason" thing typically comes from other people who are experiencing deep grief. I think those people are typically much more comfortable acknowledging the pain that other people run from. It comes from people who can't and don't want to wrap their heads around deep grief. And that isn't really an excuse to be an asshole.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:28 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Like Joey Michaels said above. Because yeah, in terms of basic causality, sure, there are reasons, like your immune system couldn't handle the pathogen or carcinogen, but that doesn't make them meaningful.

Not to pick on any individual, but that's not a reason. That's a mechanism. It's an answer to how, not why. And in that sense, it is absolutely not true that everything happens for a reason (unless you want to attribute agency to basic laws of physics in which case what the fuck?)
posted by Dysk at 7:29 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


"You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe."

Marcus Cole, Babylon 5
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:31 PM on December 15, 2015 [58 favorites]


I just want to state for the record that the richness and power of the comments in this thread are precisely why I have kept coming back to this precious website for over a decade. There is nowhere else on the internet where I can find this sort of community. I find that I often bookmark the comment pages on metafilter more frequently than I bookmark the actual links themselves.
Thank you all for your contributions and for your wisdom and your willingness to share.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:35 PM on December 15, 2015 [22 favorites]


Look Nick, it's this simple: Then don't say anything.

Zactly. I mean, I honestly know only 1 or 2 people max well enough to "grieve with them." With nearly everyone else, it'd be unbelievably presumptuous and intrusive of me to think I could or should participate in their grieving. Fortunately, it's super-easy not to, even for a socially awkward jerk such as myself. Like if a student tells me about a death, I just say, "I'm very sorry for your loss" and look at them sympathetically and listen to whatever else they say. And then shut the fuck up and go about my business.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:37 PM on December 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


Nickrussell, you're asking to be given a social pass on not helping someone else with their pain, without taking the concurrent social hit of being seen as a callous person or the risk of vulnerability on opening up enough to expose your own struggle with pain to say "I can't handle this, I'm sorry".
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:39 PM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


My theory is that SOME things happen for a reason. And some don't. Some people are able to make lemonade out of lemons (which makes it seem like "everything happens for a reason" because we can work it into a plotline) and some are not. Some people get saved by a miracle (note: just finished watching Jane the Virgin and the closing line was something referring to miracles getting limited or else they wouldn't be miracles) and some don't. The real kicker/problem we don't know how to solve or resolve is: how come we don't always get saved? How come some people never get saved and some do? Or only sometimes get saved? Why does God want some people to die in the worst, most agonizing way possible and other people just wake up and their cancer is gone?

That, folks, is what we have no damn answers for. Sometimes things turn out into an awesome story and sometimes you just end up with another dead body in the street and fuck if we know why. A friend of mine is atheist pretty much for that kind of logic and I can't argue with it. I believe, but my belief has kinda been circling the drain the past few years. I've had weird experiences (with eyewitnesses, while I was sober and so were they) that make me think there's something out there, but lately I don't feel like it's listening. Maybe there's nothing there and I'm crazy, or God just said "fuck y'all, I'm out," or there's some kind of logic we don't get and will never find out.

then how do you explain bad shit happening to good people??

The theory usually is that you did something bad in a past life and now you have to pay for it in another one. Which isn't exactly a super nice or fair or remotely reasonable theory and sure makes me hate the idea of past lives. Like, what was I, Hitler? And when is the karma gonna kick in for certain jerks I know now?

- and one of the types is basically a fancy word for praying "I HATE YOU GOD YOU'RE A DICKHEAD AND YOUR UNIVERSE SUCKS BALLS."

What's the name of this, please? Asking for a friend.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:41 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or, you can realize that "everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you..." are not reasoned existential or theological propositions but are simply another culture's way of saying "I'm sorry for your loss / pain and I hope it doesn't rob you of hope and purpose in life."
posted by MattD at 7:44 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I appreciate the efforts that others above have made to say that Christianity is not the plate of sugar cookies that some make it out to be when it comes to the topic of grief and how to cope with it or think about it.

My own observation, having been in religious circles all my life and a Christian now, is this: Christianity is one of the dominant religions in Western culture, at least for now. There is no shortage of simpletons of all faiths or no faith. When you put that particular Venn diagram together, you're going to get both clerical and lay Christians saying some awfully dumb things. I attended the funeral of a friend where the minister attempted to discuss the hope of a bodily resurrection by referring to a horror movie where someone was buried alive. Don't ask me to explain how he got from point A to point B because I can't even. It happens.

What I've gathered from reading the scriptures themselves, as opposed to relying on statements by people who try to interpret them for me, is a WHOLE lot of wrestling with awful things. And while you sometimes get saints who say that particular bad things are "working together for good," or who talk in a complex way about rejoicing to be counted worthy to suffer for God, you never get:

- bad things are all part of God's perfect will.
- bad things are actually good.
- bad things don't happen to good people.

Instead, you get people crying, weeping, wailing, and generally kicking God in the shins about it.

Jesus' apostles actually asked Him about whether a man with an infirmity sinned or was it his parents, and His response was "neither."

I mean, the central premise, whether you agree with it or not, is that there was one perfect Son of God and Man. And they killed Him. That's pretty dark when you think about it. So whether you think the answers are convincing or satisfactory, I don't think that there is an attempt made to paper over the problem.

Oddly, and perhaps inappropriately, I'm reminded of a happy occasion - the day I got married. I was pretty young and immature. To be perfectly honest, I got very tired at my reception of people walking up to us and saying stupid things. "How does it feel to be an old married man?" was on the leaderboard. I didn't know what to say in response because it just seemed so - weird. How about "congratulations!" or "It was a nice wedding?" or "Where are you going on your honeymoon?" Have a conversation with me, don't just spout idiotic stuff, I thought.

I complained about this to my mom later, and she gave me a pretty good perspective on it. "These people love you and they wanted to say something to you. And they didn't really know what to say."
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:46 PM on December 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


"Everything happens for a reason" is basically another example of a Thought-Terminating Cliché: an easy balm for cognitive dissonance.
posted by um at 7:50 PM on December 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


So what are your thoughts on theodicy?

Being with is sometimes everything.


The various writers of the Bible don't have much to say about why God would allow evil, but they portray a God who in various ways (but especially in Jesus) is with us rather than waving his hands and solving everything for us.

I don't pretend that's a satisfying answer to the philosophical questions, but the similarity between that conception of God and the way we wish people would act when we are suffering means a lot to me.
posted by straight at 7:50 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Or, you can realize that "everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you..." are not reasoned existential or theological propositions but are simply another culture's way of saying "I'm sorry for your loss / pain and I hope it doesn't rob you of hope and purpose in life."

I don't want to keep being fighty about this but...it seems to me that I have been able to learn to stop saying some offensive things in my life, because the general trend of my corner of the world has been increased sensitivity. Like...person-first language. Not assuming everyone is heterosexual, or or or.

So I don't really see why the grieving people have to just shut up about this one.

On a personal level, as stated, I don't stare people down and say "how could you say that to me?" although I have about more offensive things. But maybe, having had the conversation, now some people will choose different social platitudes like:

I'm sorry for your loss.
My condolences.
My condolences on your loss.
How are you doing?
Hope you are doing okay.
I'm not sure what to say, but I wanted to let you know I am thinking about you.

Since there are a lot of options out there in the world.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


I think "imprecatory" is the technical term, but we mostly called it rage-prayer.

"it basically posits that after a certain point God is not only bound by his own word but that he creates man in his image, like a mirror, because he can't see himself and has no one greater than himself to consult...so for example he's remote and vengeful and on the side of the powerful until a prayerful human calls him merciful and then he's like oh! I'm merciful! And only after that in the Bible is he merciful. "


I enjoyed the book, and I think it's an interesting literary analysis of the Bible that provides some different angles of illumination. Theologically it's a torch Marcionist, which won't fly, but I think she gives us different ways to examine the text, which is incredibly valuable, even if we don't agree with all her conclusions.

(Personally I think Numbers is terribly interesting because I see the overarching theme of the book as being, God has moved into the Ark and they're toting him around the desert and he keeps having to kill thousands at a time for various transgressions, and slowly it dawns on God and Israel that they probably need some roommate rules for "living with God." In Hebrew the title is "in the wilderness" and it illustrates this weird moment where Israel is free, God is "tenting" (the Hebrew verb describing God living in the tabernacle) among them, and they suddenly have to learn how to be the chosen people who have a God, and God has to figure out how to have a chosen people! They start out bad at it! All the lawmaking gets more interesting when you see it in the context of a relationship negotiation where God and Israel are realizing for the first time what living together MEANS.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 PM on December 15, 2015 [28 favorites]


I’m someone who thinks everything may happen for a reason, but who knows? But I think it’s egotistical and ridiculous to tell someone suffering a loss "here’s how you should be thinking about this". I feel like people have confused the point of this whole sentiment. "Everything happens for a reason" is something you may or may not say to yourself, something one might philosophize about, NOT something you say to someone else.

I don’t think this is a religious issue at all, in any way. I think this is rudeness, ego, and evangelical issue. If someone suffers a loss and says to me "Everything happens for a reason" I’m not going to tell them they are wrong, or agree. Whether it’s true or not isn’t the point. It’s not my place to use their loss as an opportunity to share my half assed philosophy. Or try and teach them something or fix things. My job is to comfort them and let them deal with it.

That said, I think the majority of people are just repeating something they heard or read somewhere. It’s a shame that that’s the message that sticks, but we live in that kind of society.
posted by bongo_x at 8:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


God is incapable of preventing the bad things from happening. God relinquished this capacity when God established physics. For whatever reason this was necessary in order for the universe to develop its own, personal, independent consciousness. Without the terror of mortality and the cruelty of natural sin we wouldn't have free will and God would remain alone - or, worse - a puppet-master, a child playing alone in a room full of toys.

If this gives you reason to abandon God - go for it. Process theology has proved to be a dead-end for most of the church.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin gave the best process-oriented response to tragedy and grief when he lashed out at a well-meaning "everything happens for a reason" type person at a worship service following his son's death. If you can read the whole thing it is truly worth your time. But the long and short is that a woman told him, thoughtlessly, in response to his son's untimely death - "I just don't understand the will of God."

And he delivered this response to his heartbroken congregation - "My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."

The message of the cross (if there is such a thing) is not that God can fix our pain. It is, rather, that God is in our pain. That God will never again stand above our pain and suffering - but that God is with us in the depth of our pain. The pain of a parent losing a child, the pain of a convict dying a humiliating death, the pain of a lover witnessing the end of their relationship, the death of every person who is living.

I know that in the depths of my grief I am closest to the God who we killed on the cross. And that the death of God was the moment that conjoined my body with the rest of the universe - and that I will never be alone in my death.

This seems to jive with scripture and with my own understanding of life. "If your God can't prevent suffering, then why call him God?" That's an incredibly important question. The Roman soldiers and the onlookers asked almost the same question during the crucifixion.

It's always been better for me to have someone beside me than someone protecting me.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:13 PM on December 15, 2015 [23 favorites]


"Or, you can realize that "everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you..." are not reasoned existential or theological propositions but are simply another culture's way of saying "I'm sorry for your loss / pain and I hope it doesn't rob you of hope and purpose in life.""

The thing is, anyone with training in grief counseling, or a little pastoral training, or even Miss Manners, will tell you THESE ARE TERRIBLE THINGS TO SAY TO GRIEVING PEOPLE. You may mean it as " I'm sure you can get through this and find meaning in your life" but the grieving person hears "God killed your child for a reason, as part of a plan, THIS is happening to you ON PURPOSE, you have been supernaturally targeted." No matter how well you mean it, it is an intensely cruel thing to say to someone grappling with grief. The social lesson here is not, "Grievers, cut the verbally clumsy a break" (which they're already doing anyway); the social lesson here is that when you're offering words of consolation to a friend, USE YOUR FUCKING HEAD and don't say these ones that people are universally agreeing hurt far more than they help.

You can't really go wrong with, "I'm so sorry," "He was a good man," "We'll miss her." Speculating on the metaphysical meaning or lack thereof of a tragedy is NOT HELPFUL for expressing social grief.

Since we're telling outre funeral stories, I was at one where the preacher said, "Since we all know he's in hell ..." (he committed suicide) and proceeded to single out the friends of the dead man's daughter who he knew to be heathen sinners - Hindus and Jews and Catholics - and altar call us to all come up and repent and get baptized and saved so we wouldn't go to hell too. Suuuuuuuuper awkward.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:15 PM on December 15, 2015 [37 favorites]


I agree with the other Christians in this thread that the "everything happens for a reason" theology is pretty shallow, at least in the terms in which it is normally expressed. Christian theodicy has to have something to do with the crucifixion and Gethsemane and "why have you forsaken me", and the answer we get from those events - and the Resurrection - can't be a cosy sort of "it was all for your own good." You only have to read Mark to feel to your bones how horrible and crushing and randomly cruel suffering can be, and how the thing that happens afterwards is appallingly mysterious and joyful but doesn't in any way cancel out the horror. That the crucifixion Happened For A Reason is somehow, mysteriously, true but God's tortured body on the cross tells us that the reason can't be because He wills suffering, from a long way away, just as a lesson or as punishment for us. "God wanted another angel in heaven" is actually grimly funny as a response to Christ Himself calling out for rescue and receiving no reply - I think that trying to put those two images together pretty clearly reveals how nonsensical the former is.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:17 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]




Not to pick on any individual, but that's not a reason. That's a mechanism. It's an answer to how, not why.
Sorry for late reply, but Dysk, I think you're misunderstanding my entire point, which was similar to others. I'm using the word "reason" ironically, as in that it is just a mechanism, a matter of physics with NO purpose and that pseudo-insightful, pseudo-profound people assign meaning and purpose (the why not the how) to meaningless events in their desire to feel a sense of both wisdom as well as order and control in a universe filled with chaos and cruel chance. I was saying the 'why' is just a 'how' and only a 'how'. The 'why' is an illusion. I thought I was pretty clear on that; if not I apologize for the confusion.

Also, as an aside, if someone like me doesn't believe in cosmic meaning in physical events, it doesn't mean we're nihilists {insert Lebowski joke here} automatically, but me, I'm of a quasi-buddhist bent. Cruel chance necessitates compassion. If you want to call that my 'meaningfullness', I'm cool with that. If we don't have any compassion to spare that moment, that's the limitation of being human, but rationalizing other's tragedies away for our own comfort is fucked.

Although you're misinterpreting my sarcastic use of the word 'reason', we probably actually agree on that the phrase & concept of 'everything happens for a reason" is horseshit because yep, no meaning is there. It's a willful illusion that annoying people foist on others in times of pain and it needs to go. Like Anne Neville said, it has more to do with the speaker's comfort than the listener's. I think it's something they tell themselves to avoid sharing pain that they can't empathize with.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 8:35 PM on December 15, 2015


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.
posted by humanfont at 8:40 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Because it's not just a harmless cliche. "I'm sorry for your loss" is a cliche. 'Everything happens for a reason' is like a philosophy lecture at the worst time possible. It means that God wants your pain. The universe wanted you to get cancer etc etc.

The article is trying to promote a cultural shift. This reminds me of the "why don't you have children" question that we talked about in which people said "You're taking it too personally. It's just small talk" etc.

What people are saying is that bad conventions NEED TO DIE. They suck, let them go. You have to publicly declare something as wrong in order for it to change, and as you can see from all the painful experiences above, people were agonized by comments like this. When it's bad practice--very hurtful, in fact-- it's up to the speaker to change, not the listener.

Just like my dear old mom who no longer says "Chinamen" because I told her to stop. We can recognize bad cultural practices and we can change them.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 8:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [36 favorites]


By the way, I say this as someone who is a total klutz socially who has put my foot in my mouth more times than I can count, hence my name. So yeah, I feel the awkward but sometimes we have to just evolve and not make excuses.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 8:50 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


To me, one of the most important "reasons things happen" is Randomness. Cancer (in all its many forms) is totally random.... someone can make it to age 100 cancer-free while smoking every day. Because (yes, this an oversimplification) it only takes one molecule of a carcinogenic substance coming in contact with the right cell to start a cancer growing. But for every time it happens, it doesn't happen millions or billions of times - you don't 'catch' cancer, you 'win/lose the cancer lottery'. (Of course, more exposure to carcinogens mean more 'chances' to lose) And when something like that is ultimately dependent on random chance, the rest of the universe makes a little more sense, and I can take solace from that a lot better than "God's Will", or "God's Plan" because that would make "God" a worse sadistic hateful asshole than all the worst humans in history combined.

Things happen. More often randomly than not. And you know what? That makes life interesting (even if it's 'interesting' in the same way as a Lovecraft novel or zombie movie or a GOP debate). But that also means it's not your fault (unless you're voting for Trump).
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:55 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Somebody said this in response to the original piece and I think it's been sort of acknowledged here but - for some people this concept *is* comforting. I don't personally understand this at all - in fact I find it vastly preferable to think there is no cosmic meaning to anything- but a lot of people wouldn't want to hear me explain that in their moment of grief. The real difference is that the "God's plan" view is socially acceptable to tell people for some reason. I think you have to recognize that a lot of people actually *do* think they're helping with this but - fuck's sake everybody just keep your mouth shut.
posted by atoxyl at 9:06 PM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm sorry if I missed this earlier in the thread, but I think that crappy statement is actually a misstatement of something the Bible actually does say-which is God works everything for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Now pay attention-I didn't say that every thing WAS good or that God wanted tragedy to happen-that is not the God I serve.

I know in my life I have dealt with some pretty crappy stuff. The crappy painful tragic stuff was NOT good. God agreed with me it wasn't good. But what He did do is use those things-things I had to endure just like everyone else-and make something good come out of them. He won't waste my pain if I give it to Him. But He was not the author of that pain to start with. Other people, or Satan, or my own stupidity, maybe. But not Him.

If this is hard to grok, I understand. But what God did NOT say is that He wouldn't give us more than we could handle, and that there was a reason for everything. Unless that reason was life is just a bitch sometimes, or because Satan, or, well, you get the point.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:14 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


when something like that is ultimately dependent on random chance, the rest of the universe makes a little more sense, and I can take solace from that a lot better

It helps with making sense of things. The loss and ache are made more terrible this way, though (or this is true for me), and the burden of living (well) is heavier. Being with those who remain is what's left - and some are alone (without wanting to be. Though, of course, many do want to be alone, especially in a culture that considers this a virtue, and doesn't offer many alternatives).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:15 PM on December 15, 2015


"Everything happens for a reason" is comforting if you reach that philosophical place yourself. If somebody else says it to you, it's not.

And as a not-terribly-well-read Buddhist, I have to say that the understanding of karma I have from my teacher doesn't include anything like having your loved one die as retribution for your bad actions in your past lives. "You do something bad, bad things happen to you" is a pretty simplistic understanding of karma.
posted by Lexica at 9:16 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think you have to recognize that a lot of people actually *do* think they're helping with this but - fuck's sake everybody just keep your mouth shut.

Personally, I think I'm arguing on two fronts. First against the 'just world'-ish philosophy that it veers towards and second against the cultural practice. I think people here get that it can be very well-intentioned or innocuous at least, just a lack of knowing what to say, but still want it to stop because it's too pervasive and too offensive.

I know I yap on and on too much so I should probably stop yelling....this is just one of those topics that I've been waiting to bitch and rant about publicly for 30 years and Thank the Lord for Metafilter, now we have a forum for bitching and ranting. Every thread happens for a reason...
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 9:17 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

The person who is grieving shouldn't bear the burden of accepting someone else's tone deaf, completely unhelpful, sometimes destructive "attempt" at providing comfort. It should not be on them to to just change how they react to something which is at the very least very insensitive.

I think this ties into that "comfort in, dump out" model (which I first heard about here on mefi). The grieving person at the center shouldn't have to pander to the people who are in the outer layers of the circle, and to me that includes not having to feel grateful when someone says something that is hurtful, no matter what the original intention.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:18 PM on December 15, 2015 [29 favorites]


I wasn't telling people in the thread to shut up I was telling people who feel the need to share their philosophy with acquaintances in deep emotional pain to shut up (which I think was a major part of the conclusion of the original link).
posted by atoxyl at 9:24 PM on December 15, 2015


The people who can't sit with me in my grief are not the ones who are carrying a heavy burden of sorrow or pain themselves. They're the ones who have led lucky lives up until now, and are terrified of the day that luck runs out. The people who say awful and trite things to me are using it as a way to reassure themselves not me. They get caught in the headlights of life's cruelty and freeze. They say the former thing that comes to mind. They scamper away.

The people who have sat with grief of their own say things like "I'm sorry" and "that sucks" or "can I bring dinner?"

Some people in my family, who have had the same losses, are still in that first camp. Because they can't admit the grief into their life and they just walk through it trying not to catch glimpses of it around the corner. And I have seen what happens when it finally catches up with them, and the platitudes turn to ashes in their mouth. Some people deal with grief by running away from it, and I think it's these people who keep pushing this pablum.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:41 PM on December 15, 2015 [21 favorites]


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

Wow.

People do recognize it for what it is meant to me. But it hurts at the time, for a lot of people. My bereavement group used to talk about it.

And you know, when someone loses a child or their leg or gets cancer or whatever, maybe it is not the time to ask them to recognize how great other people are for muttering platitudes that are actually hurting them.

Why is this so hard to understand? It's like...if people are Jewish, it might be lousy to tell them their child is with Jesus. (Sitting shiva has rules about talking, in fact.)

Maybe not assuming that people think "everything happens for a reason" isn't that hard a stretch.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:43 PM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

I guess for me it's about vulnerability and responsibility. If I just won the Lotto or am having a good day and people say well-intended but intensely stupid, tone-deaf, and hurtful things to me about it, no biggie. I can afford to be generous and overlook it. I've got an emotional surplus or something.

But if you are sick or grieving or injured or super-stressed or otherwise really laid low by life at a given moment, then it should not be on YOU to be magnanimous and generous and cut people slack right then. Other people, who have an emotional surplus, should be cutting YOU slack and being mindful about what they say and generally taking extra care not to be dicks, even well-intended ones. Or at least they should understand that your being very vulnerable may cause you to take crappy remarks to heart that would otherwise roll off your back.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:44 PM on December 15, 2015 [17 favorites]


Other people, who have an emotional surplus, should be cutting YOU slack

They should, but people are usually at a loss, they don't know what to do or say. Our culture offers us nothing but silence in the face of sickness or death - they're cleaned up, processed by professionals, packaged away in hospitals and funeral homes. Death and sickness are offensive, a failure of optimism, will, progress, science. A threat.

Or, you can realize that "everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you..." are not reasoned existential or theological propositions but are simply another culture's way of saying "I'm sorry for your loss / pain and I hope it doesn't rob you of hope and purpose in life."

Yup.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:03 PM on December 15, 2015


This reminds me of the platitudes about people getting what they deserve. Nope. People get what they get and sometimes it is because they work hard or are super good and nice and sometimes the person is Dick Cheney.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 10:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

Why not, indeed?

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Those cliched expressions are filled with good intentions, but as so many people seem to be pointing out, they're just little boosts along the road to hell for those who are actually grieving.

Is it always the burden of those suffering to bear more? Already wounded, already in pain, and yet they should smile and graciously receive someone pushing a bouquet full of thorns at them, just because someone thought the few roses might have been nice?

Why not just change how one expresses their sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings is in pain. Recognize that not all gestures help, and fewer still heal.
posted by qcubed at 10:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


Or, you can realize that "everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you..." are not reasoned existential or theological propositions but are simply another culture's way of saying "I'm sorry for your loss / pain and I hope it doesn't rob you of hope and purpose in life."

Right, and I'm here from Planet Grief to inform you that is what you think you are saying. But what is actually coming out of your mouth may be received as

"You deserve the loss you are experiencing, in some cosmic way, and I am so glad my obligation to say something is over, because I have not left any conversational pathway to you telling me anything painful or different."
posted by warriorqueen at 10:19 PM on December 15, 2015 [40 favorites]


Hugs if you want them warriorqueen.
posted by futz at 10:41 PM on December 15, 2015


"You deserve the loss you are experiencing, in some cosmic way, and I am so glad my obligation to say something is over, because I have not left any conversational pathway to you telling me anything painful or different."

Yes, and also, I feel like it's kind of taking away your right to grieve because, after all, if this happens for a reason, then, you know, why be sad? It feels so much akin to the horrible "They're in heaven now" bullshit. I don't think there are bad intentions behind these sentiments, but I do feel like it often serves as an excuse not to engage with the person who is grieving.

Related to this, there is also a certain subset of people who seem to feel the need to fix everything, and they just can't sit with their own discomfort at not being able to fix things. This is already a pretty frustrating trait to deal with, but it's even more so when it comes to deeply felt emotions, grief being chief among those.

After all, at the end of the day, you can't fix grief. The same is true with any trauma. It's not a problem to be solved. You just have to find a way to survive it and eventually live with it, and usually that process starts by just allowing yourself to sit with the feelings.

Of course, I say this as someone really struggles to accept and experience intensely painful emotions, but it's definitely something I'm working on because in my most self aware moments, I understand that I can never really outrun these experiences and the emotions attached to them. They catch up with me eventually.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


also worthy of a poke in the eye, imho: "onward and upward!"

oops
posted by h00py at 11:45 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The irony is: I actually do believe that the bad shit that happens to people can ultimately shape them, and can sometimes make them stronger.

However, that is also the very last thing I would tell them in the immediate aftermath of grief, because that's a realization you need to come to by yourself, when you've had the time to actually start identifying in your own self the ways that you HAVE been made stronger. And that's something that only the grieving person can do for their own selves, and they can only do it when they're ready.

It's like - when I broke my foot, my orthopedist told me that he kind of pain I was feeling if I stepped funny on the cast was coming from the newly- broken bones being pulled apart, and that was bad. The best way to treat that pain was to avoid it, because the bones neede to re-knit. Then, six weeks later - and only after the bones had re-knit - I could start seeing a physical therapist, who told me that em occasional pain I was now feeling was because the muscles had grown weak during those weeks of inactivity and just needed to be woken up again. So the way to treat that pain was to just ease it, and gently keep moving.

They were both pain, but they were pain from two different sources. Treating the pain of a fresh blow as if it were the kind of pain you get when you're consciously trying to strengthen something is a mistake. That's why telling someone "this all happens for a reason" to someone just after a loss would be like telling me to have exercised my foot right after that break - their internal support is shattered and needs to heal first. THEN they can start to build their emotional strength back up, when THEY are ready.

Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

By the same token - why can YOU not change how you OFFER that comfort? You're the one with the greater emotional awareness and the greater emotional strength, first of all, so you are better able to mind what you say and how you react because you aren't currently burdened with fresh grief. And one of your fellow human beings is saying that hearing this when they're so fresh,y injured is adding additional hurt. Recognize their PAIN for what it is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Thank you for this. This is particularly timely for me, as my wife died a year ago today.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:15 AM on December 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


Science itself has a version of this conflict of worldviews by different kinds of people - the issue is the concept of teleological reasoning, and the validity of using it in scientific discourse. I like the wikipedia page on it because it's short and readable. I hope some people find it interesting, philosophically.
posted by polymodus at 12:18 AM on December 16, 2015


Recognize the gesture for what it is.

Empty?
posted by mordax at 12:23 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


I read this piece back in October and it really resonated with me because all the therapy I've ever had for grief just seemed victim-blamey and gross, no matter how great the therapist was and how much I liked them. I wish I had posted it here; I didn't because I thought metafilter was too regime of choice. Thanks, Brandon.
posted by Violet Hour at 12:23 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hugs if you want them warriorqueen

Thanks. :) I'm ok, my losses aren't at all fresh even if this discussion pushed my buttons a bit last night.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:49 AM on December 16, 2015


Last time I was bereaved, I remember feeling annoyed by the few people who offered me poorly thought out platitudes, but also a kind of meta-annoyance at being forced into thinking peevish and snooty thoughts like 'Screw your stupid clichés you fucking idiot.' You don't want to feel like a snide aesthetician of language when you're grieving.
posted by Mocata at 4:39 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


A few months ago an aquaintance, who was aware of the super shitty thing that happened to me a couple of years ago asked how I was doing now.

At some point after I expressed that things were going well enough but still some bad days here and there she asked "So have you figured out the reason yet? It helps a lot."

I'm thought at the time there is a reason this person is just an aquaintence.
I also thought that I needed to get an app on my phone that at a push of the button plays a sad trombone sound bite, 'wah waaah'.

Yes she meant well. I do get that but no, just no.
posted by Jalliah at 5:01 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


After an intensely painful personal loss which I had a lot of trouble coping with, a sister-in-law told me confidently "God doesn't give us more than we can handle." This was spoken with what this woman surely believed was a reassuring smile.

It felt like a hard slap across the face.

I have never seen this woman--who had never experienced such a loss--the same way since. It also helped me accept my own atheism which I'd been reluctant to embrace. In many ways I have not been the same person since. I am extremely reluctant to admit pain to others and have become more socially isolated, and the memory of that moment has even made me unable to confront my own health issues because I assume that if I make myself vulnerable (nobody is more vulnerable than a patient under the knife) I will be on my own with nowhere to turn if I need help.

One sentence. It only took one sentence.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:04 AM on December 16, 2015 [18 favorites]


Great post. I haven't read all the comments yet, but thank the god I don't believe in for MeFi. I feel a little less alone in all this. It sometimes seems the world is full of fatalists.

My mum has always said and believed "everything happens for a reason". It's like a mantra or something. I remember distinctly a time when I was a kid, sat in the car, and she said it, and I just thought "...but that's clearly bullshit." I must have been a teenager at the time.

She brings it out at every opportunity, and I don't doubt she still believes it. It used to annoy the hell out of me. Still does. But I learned to tune it out, along with all the other vapid, mindless bullshit we get subjected to on a daily basis. Most of it is just background noise to me now, people flapping their mouths, little more. I try not to think about how superstitious and stupid people can be.

I've been lucky to have been spared any serious loss or trauma so far, but it won't last forever. But it comes out just the same when something good happens, particularly when it wasn't planned. "See, everything happens for a reason."

Now I have started to reply, "I prefer to say that you have to try to make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in." It's not perfect, but it's healthier.

I could go on about this forever, the absurdity, the negative effects of believing this stuff... it's all been said before and better. It causes such endless mental anguish, I don't know why people cling to it.

No, wait, I do. It's because the alternative is scary. The alternative is that the universe is chaotic and uncaring. There is no plan, there is no meaning, there is no God.

But I find that liberating, and I agree with the existentialists who said that you make your own meaning in this life, but never forget that it's just that - something you made up - and you can change your mind whenever. Whatever helps you sleep at night. If that's that it's all part of God's plan, then fine. But Christ, I wish people wouldn't project their personal fictions on the rest of us.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."


So it goes.
posted by Acey at 5:07 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


There was a time I tried to believe, but I got tired of making excuses for a god that isn't there.
posted by dashDashDot at 5:23 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


The people who say this stuff ("God doesn't give us..." "Everything happens for...") are people who are comforted by these thoughts. My mom (who loves me very much) says this kind of stuff to me all the time, if not those exact cliches. She sends me prayers to patron saints of this or that problem, though she knows I'm an atheist. If I tell her I'm upset about a health problem my kids have, she tells me about all the people she knows who have worse health problems and yet are doing great!

It has taken me years to figure out that she does this because these are the things that make her feel better. Her life is NOT untouched by tragedy. But when she has experienced tragedy, these are the ways she copes with it (by contemplating on the sufferings of this or that saint, by taking courage from the example of others who have overcome this, by talking to her church friends who say this stuff to each other.)

I have resorted to telling her exactly how to comfort me, since her instincts are all wrong. "Mom, I need to you to just say 'this sucks.'" Or some more specific message that I am trying to get myself to believe "Mom, I need you to say 'This isn't your burden, it's theirs, and you can't take it from them.'" It's kind of exhausting. But the alternative is basically not having a relationship with her. Which would be a shame, because in spite of her tendency to stick her foot in her mouth, she would take a bullet for me, and I know this.

And when she is upset, though I can't force myself to send her a prayer to St. So-and-so, I resist the temptation to "comfort" her by telling her it was just random, nothing she could have done, totally undeserved... Those thoughts often comfort me, but for her it is like I'm telling her life is meaningless and there's no point in continuing to exist. I just try to agree with and repeat back the things I hear her telling herself.
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:36 AM on December 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's a very big difference between (1) a well-meaning (but clumsy) person saying "everything happens for a reason", and (2) saying such a thing to oneself as a way of creating meaning out of the raw material of reality.

One of them is unintentionally insensitive and potentially even cruel, the other is the part of the process of processing.
posted by theorique at 5:40 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


A concentrated stretch of miseries starting twenty years ago is the reason that I'm often described by friends and associates as the happiest grouchy person they ever met. My ten-year relationship ended after an unsuccessful business venture. Our once-successful family business was done a major blow by a trusted employee turned embezzler, then started to fail, and my father started to drink as the stress mounted. The business failed, after demolishing my own personal finances, then my father dropped dead on the floor of his office with the phone ringing nonstop from angry creditors. My grandmother had a massive stroke at my father's funeral and was gone the next morning. The bank took my mother's house, and then mine.

I am a person of habits and ritual and the comfort of familiarity, and all that was wiped out.

I was very, very unhappy in 1998.

My response to grief is not like most people's, it seems. The rest of my family clustered together for warmth and comfort, while I was happier to spend hours curled up in a fetal position on the kitchen floor in my underwear, surrounded by empty Cool Whip containers, watched over by my dog, who would drift in, nails clicking on the linoleum like the rattle of prayer beads, and would press herself into the small of my back and wait for me to find a way out. I would sleep through the day and be up all night, dancing out the demons with ten feet of coiled cord connecting my headphones to the CD player until I was steamed up like a race horse. My sleepwalking was out of control, and I'd sometimes wake on my feet afterexecuting some bizarre chain of incomprehensible unconscious tasks to find the dog patiently standing by, watching.

Everyone said the wrong things.

"Everything happens for a reason" is the language of imbeciles indoctrinated in my country's fanatical devotion to the ridiculous just-world hypothesis that underlies so much of what's wrong with America, not least of which was the government-and-countrymen genocidal non-response to the Reagan Memorial AIDS Epidemic™ that I experienced as a young newly-minted homosexual looking around at a culture that was cracking jokes as people like me died. People cling to it because they're so afraid of the alternative, which seems so much less fair, but life isn't fair, and accepting that fairness comes from us, not from more mystical sources, means that we have a job and a responsibility instead of grace. I'd already been an agnostic for some time, but on the maybe-there's-something-good side instead of the more neutral end, so I could shrug off the "God never gives you more than you can handle," or "God has a plan for you" variety of nonsense, delivered with the usual gassy awkward smiles and reluctance, but that notion of a reason was vexing.

And the thing is—if there's a reason, what was it? Why would there be reasons in the world if we're just meant to suffer and struggle and deal with random things that people keep telling us aren't reasons at all?

Unless, of course, they're just wrong.

In the long pause before I could regain enough of my composure to get back to work in a new world in which the career I'd worked at for my entire adult life was gone, I revisited the buddhist study I'd taken up in college and left in college. I read Pema Chödrön obsessively, wearing the covers off my pocket copy of Awakening Loving Kindness, and I worked my way from Pooh taoism to reading every translation of the Tao Te Ching I could find in hopes of arriving at a collective mean. Someone clued me in to sliding-scale therapy at the Whitman-Walker clinic and I briefly had a therapist who stroked my narcissistic need for someone to let me prattle on in a long-form explication of excuses before she became unavailable and I ended up with a new therapist who practiced something called "somatic experience therapy" and irritated me by constantly forcing me to jump out of my distancing narratives and meet frustrating challenges, including times when she'd literally jump on me like an angry yoga monkey, poking at me to illustrate how my tactic of withdrawing wasn't working.

I didn't end up as a buddhist, though I do count myself as buddhism-adjacent, and I tend to describe myself as a clockwork taoist when I'm called on to point out where I stand, but the philosophy itself wasn't enough. The therapy itself was not enough. The passage of time wasn't enough, either, and the way that my friends and family repaid my long history of being everyone's handyman, computer tech, friendly bartender by finding ways to do what they could do was gratifying, but it's really aggregate of all those things that made it clear.

There is no reason, but that's okay.

Things have a cause, in that a chain of things happening causes other things to happen, but our pareidolia and pattern-finding leads us to believe something hurtful, which is that, when bad things happen to us, they happen for a reason. Sure, there are lessons in mistakes, and in being unprepared, but telling someone that their suffering has a reason behind it is nonsensical, and it's a hurtful side effect of an intellectual laziness and unwillingness to just accept that sometimes, we can't say anything that will instantly make things better by explaining them.

I can actually remember the moment when it all became clear for me, when I was behind the wheel on a nice day, and it occurred to me that there's no one out there and I had to pull over and just sit for a while. There's no one out there. There's no authority behind the way the universe acts the way it does beyond science and the fizzing realm of probability and random events. A weight came off me.

When I hurt, and when I wondered what I'd done to leave myself broken after I'd worked so hard to have a life and be a good person, I was not abandoned or found unworthy of intervention. I faced these things without celestial intervention not because I'd deserved to, but because we are all alone until we make the effort to reach out and build families and networks and to accept help when it's given and give help when we can, always mindful of our privilege and our good luck when we get it.

When I see other people hurting now, I don't dabble in the post-religion nonsense beloved of those who say things like "I'm sending you good thoughts," or "I'm sending you white light," because those things are not true, because you can't "send" such things, and I don't say "I'm praying for you," because I don't pray, and I don't say "I'm thinking of you," because that's a responsibility you're given to the other person.

"I'm sorry," I say, because I am, and add, "How can I be of help?" because that's a far, far better question than sowing the seeds of doubt with bullshit like reason and karma and a universe that sees you broken and turns away for whatever vaunted reason we impose on the imagined architect behind all these disasters.

And more than that, I remember my dog, gone six years now, and how she got it all so right, when she saw me broken, sitting alone with my head buzzing with doubt and anger and frustration and seemingly boundless grief and loss, and would just appear at my side, then lean in so I'd know she was there, because she knew something was wrong and had nothing to give but that moment.

"This is a hell of a thing, isn't it, dog?" I'd say, and I needed nothing more in return.
posted by sonascope at 6:38 AM on December 16, 2015 [45 favorites]


"I HATE YOU GOD YOU'RE A DICKHEAD AND YOUR UNIVERSE SUCKS BALLS."
I haven't lost a child but I have dealt with long-term chronic illness, so this sentiment is familiar to me. I'm also a Christian, probably both in spite of said chronic illness and because of it, in that it's forced me to sort through some fairly deep stuff morally and philosophically and this is where I've ended up.

What I like about God as Christianity describes him is that a) He's willing to get in the middle of it and experience all of it suffering-wise b) I can say to him "I fucking hate you" and he still wants dialogue afterwards, and without prejudice.
posted by iffthen at 6:49 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


When my mother passed away there was a full house of people who relied on her kindness and listening ear. I am much like her in that- but I have my own house to care for.

So when that funeral home of people threw themselves round my neck crying while I was trying to keep politeness (and avoid the Grief Patrol- a bunch of glad handing touchy -feely people from her church who never figured out that personal physical boundaries are A Thing) and do all the things that you do when someone passes- I almost kept it together.

Until my cousin started bawling in front of me, and outright said "I know you are in pain - but what about meeeeeeee????????" Something snapped. I stepped out of the line and went off to the parking lot to smoke angrily. I did not overcome myself to help others grieve. I put the safety mask on me first (in this case an organic American Spirit).

Grief makes emotional terrorists. Boundaries are ignored, screaming is OK, and no one seems to get your feelings on the matter. So the easy words are the ones that come first.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 7:09 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


sonascope, agreed here on the point regarding your dog. Something very similar happened to me (i.e., dog comes up and pays undivided, uncritical attention)--I was sitting on the floor, about to pass out, aware of other voices milling around me, and one sure comfort was...the dog, leaning against me with all his weight (nearly 70 pounds). For him, I was a member of the pack. Either that, or he was claiming dibs on me if I died.

So yeah, don't go for words. Just show up and be present and, yeah, be quiet.
posted by datawrangler at 7:20 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah ditto on the dog thing. During the worst of my thing one of my dogs started curling up against my feet while I zoned on the couch. Just having 80 pounds of completely un-judgmental, quiet cuddle helped so much.

And now I'm crying at work.....
posted by Jalliah at 7:30 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was full of unbearable sorrow and stress. This sorrow and stress left me on edge and perpetually teetering into the fight/flight response. I felt guilt and shame. I ruminated on the statements of my friends, family and colleagues and counted them a slights or offensive. Eventually, it was helpful for me to realize that their words were not actually a cause of these feelings. They didn't amplify or silence those dark emotions. Counting their statements as slights and ruminating on those slights was the thing that made it so much worse. Trying to appreciate there gesture, empty though it might be, hurtful thought their words may sound; that gave me a way out of the spiral. Initially I still cringed when I heard their bullshit, but I was more mindful of the rumination. Eventually through a lot of mindful work I was able to get to a place where my initial reaction changed from one of anger to one of being thankful that: they know I am here and that I am suffering.
posted by humanfont at 7:34 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, most people offering these hurtful platitudes are trying and failing to offer comfort, but the only way they are going to know that they are doing the opposite of what they intend is for people to regularly stand up like the FPP author and say how much it sucks. To the extent anyone wants to offer genuine comfort to the grieving, they should welcome this feedback.

That doesn't mean the grieving are obliged to lash out at cold comforters during the funeral (although I'm on their side if they do), but I say lash out against bad platitudes as loudly and often. Good people want to hear it and everyone else needs to.
posted by straight at 8:18 AM on December 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


For me, as a true social nitwit who also has social anxiety, it's actually super helpful for people to spell out when something is hurtful and why it's hurtful. I'm really grateful when people explain this kind of thing to me, precisely because I can't always figure it out for myself.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:33 AM on December 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


> Although you're misinterpreting my sarcastic use of the word 'reason'

You might want to rethink your rote use of sarcasm, then. I personally think sarcasm is very rarely a useful way to communicate outside of face-to-face interaction with someone you're sure is on your wavelength, but it's particularly unhelpful in a thread like this, where very delicate and difficult issues are being discussed.

Thanks for the post, and thanks to all the thoughtful commenters, many of whom have bared their souls in a way that has become much more common than it used to be around here; the bravery of such people has made MeFi what it is today (and helped other people to be brave about sharing their experiences).
posted by languagehat at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2015 [15 favorites]


Why not just change how you react their cliched expressions of sympathy and attempts at providing comfort? One of your fellow human beings made an attempt to offer some sympathy. Recognize the gesture for what it is.

It is a good thing to do this, to the extent that it's possible. To recognize good intentions and honor them. But sometimes "things happen for a reason" is actually a form of blame: "this happened to you because you let it, or made it, happen." When we had an adoption fall-through, an idiot acquaintance who'd recently read The Secret told me that it happened because I'd let myself imagine it happening. In her mind, this whackadoodle idea that your thoughts can shape reality meant that if a shitty, painful thing happened to me it was because my thoughts had brought it into being.

Most people who say "it's all for the best" or "everything happens for a reason" aren't being that consciously or explicitly blaming. But people want to believe that the bad thing that happened to you was somehow within your control, because then they can continue believing it won't happen to them. In the more than a decade I taught writing to college freshman, I got maybe two papers that showed any real insight. In one of them, a student talked about how his father would respond to passing the scene of an accident on the road: he'd say the person must have been driving too fast, or hadn't checked the rearview mirrors, or hadn't had their tires rotated. The dad would always attribute the accident to something that was within the driver's control, and my student thought it was a way for his dad to reassure himself that he would never have an accident.

I do think that sometimes when people offer these platitudes, they're both doing their inadequate best to offer comfort, and shoring up their belief that they live in an ordered universe and are safe, which your misfortune has challenged. They want to continue believing in their own safety, so they have to attribute your misfortune either to something you somehow had control over, or to a power—whether god-like or impersonal—that somehow has a wider view and can see a pattern and a rightness to events that seem random and uncontrolled to us.

And I get this! It's scary when the world is random. A few years ago, the husband of an acquaintance of mine tripped and fell while crossing the street, something that could happen to any of us. He was dead a few days later, from the injuries he suffered when he hit his head. Their son was maybe 8 at the time. Another friend of mine died earlier this year from cancer, leaving kids who are 16 and 14, IIRC.

The thing I want most out of life is to survive long enough to raise my children. Every parent I know wants this. But not everyone gets to live that long. And nobody wants to lose someone randomly and unexpectedly. When someone we know does, it reminds us: This could happen to me! It could happen to you! It probably won't; most likely the people we love who are healthy and alive will still be healthy and alive at the end of the day today. But it might. We don't like being reminded of that. When we're forced to be, we try to forget it as quickly as we can. Letting ourselves empathize too much with the person it happened to can be threatening. The platitudes we offer each other aren't just social placeholders; they're also a part of the bulwarks we erect between ourselves and the vagaries of the world around us.
posted by not that girl at 9:03 AM on December 16, 2015 [14 favorites]


Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell, I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by salvia at 9:20 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I didn't really learn until adulthood that social skills are actually skills that can be learned, from books even, and then get better with practice.

I used to think that if you were a good person you could just imagine how you would feel in X situation, and treat others the way imagine you would want to be treated, and that anything else was insincere. After all, who wants to talk to someone who is "just telling me what I want to hear?"

But actually it turns out it's really hard to accurately imagine how you would feel in a terrible situation. And even if you can accurately imagine how you would feel, it's not necessarily how they feel. (Eg, you might be comforted by the idea that people are praying for you, but...)

Worse, if you're trying to base your empathetic response not on pure imagination but on some similar experience you've actually had, and you find yourself telling the story of your own grief, you risk making it all about you, as if you're now asking them for comfort. Or turning the conversation into a competition about who had it worse, or trivializing the person's problem by comparing it to something that's not really analogous at all.

Also your most immediate feelings about other people's tragedies are naturally likely to be about how those tragedies affect you, but sharing those feelings, however sincere, puts you at risk of violating the "dump OUT" rule.

I've made all these terrible mistakes and more.

In the last few years, I read some books on relationships and psychology, and I learned about "validation," which is not just a cheesy feel-good buzzword. People really need to be told that their feelings are valid, that there's nothing wrong with them for feeling whatever it is they're feeling (and this only works if they believe you actually understand what they're feeling, so it requires a lot of listening and paraphrasing back what you hear, first). This isn't just "telling them what they want to hear." It's telling them what they need to hear, to be able to accept and deal with those feelings without tearing themselves apart. That has made a huge difference in my ability to not be a jerk.

I read a couple of those goofy "Five Love Languages" books and thought they were kind of goofy, but started thinking a lot harder about how my well-intentioned gestures were actually being received. I read about conflict resolution and learned you can't usually change people's minds by contradicting them. You have to say "Yes, but also this..." I learned that as tempting as it is to try to "help"... people don't like it when you give them advice, because what if they don't want to follow it? You have to let them know that they'll have your support no matter what they decide to do.

And but so anyway, it's totally possible and okay to learn these skills from books and articles, as an adult, if you did not happen to grow up in a family that models them (I certainly didn't. Interested parties can PM me for a reading list, if you want.) Nowadays I totally try to tell people what I think they want (need) to hear, not just the first "sincere" thoughts that go through my head. I don't always get it right, but I say a lot fewer terrible things to people.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:22 AM on December 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


Eleven years ago I had a seriously invasive medical procedure. My wife and I stayed in a temporary apartment in Seattle while I worked my way through it. Best friend, lifelong friend Jim drove up from Fresno to see us during the worst part.

One afternoon I woke from my nearly constant napping to see him sitting in a chair near my bed, texting (I discovered) with two of his daughters. He saw my eyes open, and said, "Hey, can I have your boots?" When I went to his funeral service three years ago I sat among his children, all adults, a son on my left and a daughter on my right. Best I could do was say that I missed him, too.

As we know, platitudes are for the person uttering them, for whatever reason. A friend's touch works fine. "I'll be here when you wake up." works fine.

"I'm sorry for your loss" is right up there with "Thank you for your service" and "Have a nice day."

One thing that came through in group sessions I shared with other veterans was this: You have to carry your own ruck, but you don't have to be out here alone. The "for a reason" shit doesn't fly. In our framing, even when you do it right the bullet addressed "To Whom it May Concern" supersedes training and skill. I mention this because the corollary to "Everything happens for a reason" is "Why did I survive?" This last haunts with major demons, and if you don't get a grip on it, it will suck all the joy out of your life. Retrospection is necessary, but the sooner you abandon the false notions of your complicity, the better. If you don't, you may be likely to morph you pain into hate--of yourself, or "them" whoever they may be. As it is, you'll leave a piece of yourself behind anyhow, so there's no use in making it any worse than it has to be.

Unless you are the person's therapist, it's probably a good idea to not help them visit existential issues of cause and effect.
posted by mule98J at 10:00 AM on December 16, 2015 [10 favorites]


A few months after I finished treatment for invasive ductal carcinoma -- as to which I quite seriously had the easiest time you can have with IDC -- caught early, hormone receptor positive, no lymph node involvement, a lumpectomy followed by a relatively short course of radiation, and an excellent prognosis -- so anyway, a few months later, I met a woman who had had a miserable experience with thyroid cancer. She was all clear and she was upbeat and positive, and she said, "I learned so much from having cancer" and I know she expected me to agree with her.

I said, "I didn't. Fuck cancer. I didn't need cancer to teach me to appreciate my life or my nice boyfriend or to cultivate gratitude for all the good things I have or to remind me that life is impermanent. I get that. Cancer can go fuck itself."

She was completely startled and it took her a couple of weeks before she let me know quietly that in fact she agreed with me and hated every "lesson" she learned from cancer.
posted by janey47 at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2015 [27 favorites]


janey47, your comment reminds me of the Bright Sided book by Barbara Ehrenreich. The book catalogues the insistence on such a positive attitude in the community of women with breast cancer and their supporters.
posted by theorique at 10:17 AM on December 16, 2015


Oh hey I was raised on this non-philosophy!

I tested it when I was six, having by then figured out it was probably bullshit after a bout of chickenpox in which my mother once again said everything happened for a reason and one of the reasons was to take a photo of me against my explicit, loudly-repeated wishes ("NO YOU CANNOT TAKE MY PICTURE"), manhandling me and forcing me into a basket in which I had to hold my similarly-poxed little brother under pains of not being fed dinner. Fun tangent: my mother said "oh shut up, you won't even remember this happened." I stared at her and said, "I WILL remember and I will TELL PEOPLE HOW MEAN YOU ARE." Bear witness, MeFi. Apparently that was for a godly reason too? Anyway.

So a little while later, maybe a few months (I was six, apart from that my sense of time isn't all that clear), my little brother purposefully pushed me against the fireplace, burning my arm in a spot. "Mooom! Tell him not to do that!"
Mother: "SHUT IT, EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON"
Me: "My arm hurts!!! It's got a red line?!?! It hurts!!!"
Mother, blandly: "well it's God's will." (34 years later I still have the scar.)
Bullshit light went on in my mind. Me: "If I push [brother] into the fireplace, is it for a reason?"
Mother grabs little brother, who I hadn't even approached, and starts screaming at me.
Ping! Bullshit confirmed.

A whole hell of a lot of stuff happened to me "for a reason" that was thus ignored by the self-proclaimed rational adults around me. On the other hand, a whole lot of stuff happened to my brother that wasn't his fault and needed extra love and care from the same adults. (In case you hadn't guessed, I'm a woman.)

Do some people not realize? Sure, okay, maybe. Is it also a tool of oppression? Well, the answer to that may be that things happening for a reason happens for a reason [which is being a tool of systemic oppression and that is a bad reason].
posted by fraula at 12:58 PM on December 16, 2015 [15 favorites]


Philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Aquinas believed in teleology, that "everything happens for a purpose". So it was difficult for them to grasp, too.

In cognitive science, we know that humans are particularly susceptible to this kind of reasoning - you have to be taught out of it, basically. Thinking habits are learned.

Points such as these two help me to remember that when people give me unproductive, and, frankly, offensive, "advice", it has a lot to do with limitations in how humans think, due to their cultural and historical background (for example if they are religious). But I can't guarantee that I'll be nice to them.
posted by polymodus at 1:29 PM on December 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Dammit, sonascope, you got me crying too. I think this is why some of the critters in our lives are the best comfort: they just are, they sit with us without platitudes or reasons and provide simple mammalian company.

(I was supposed to have had an essay up on a site over the weekend but BECAUSE REASONS couldn't get it written, so instead I shared a photo of my comfort buddy.)
posted by epersonae at 1:37 PM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


My best friend died a week ago. She went through a very very long bout of cancer (well, cancers, what shitty luck) and had come to this kind of rationale herself, along with her husband. It featured a lot in her eulogy even, what it meant for them when she first got sick, and what the second bout meant as well.

I also know that her husband hates the platitudes about how 'well' he managed and how 'good' he is for not abandoning her, not being cruel, or whatever.

Yet those two things don't mesh for them. And that's fine. When I think of what I learned from my friend, it isn't about how they dealt with the cancer, its about how wonderful she was as a mother. How fierce and protective she was about those she loved, and about how I watched her grow to love herself in those last few months and protect herself.

My friend, and her husband, took that rational reasoning and made it their own. I would not dare to cheapen it with platitudes. All I can do is be with, the same way I was when she was sick, when she was dying, when she was sleeping. It was so hard, harder than platitudes, harder than giving a meal, that staying there and watching her sleep and struggle to breathe and timing her pain medication. Being with is hard. Saying "I'm sorry" is not. Making a meal is easy too. Offering your own philosophy then walking away is the easiest and cheapest and most destructive even if they agree with you.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:19 PM on December 16, 2015 [13 favorites]


I love you all, thank you.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:25 AM on December 17, 2015


I've had psoriasis that cracks and bleeds since I was 5 or so. It made childhood difficult--to say the least. Ha! I'm fifty now and I've still got it. However, finding out yesterday that I've had a god suffering along with me just gives me a special, cozy, warm feeling inside. Thanks, man!
posted by dashDashDot at 5:08 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


A person grieving can use "everything happens for a reason" as a rationale for themselves if it helps. Other people categorically cannot use that as a way to express sympathy because fuck that. But, yeah, dogs are the best.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:27 AM on December 18, 2015


(Cats are good too.)
posted by rmd1023 at 5:27 AM on December 18, 2015


While I'm still thinking about this: Two years ago I attended my older half/brother's funeral. He was almost 90 y/o, and was killed while climbing around on his roof, changing the filters in his swamp cooler. He lived until the medics got there. His last words were "Damn rope broke."

My sister in law was devastated. Her health was frail anyhow, and one of her sons pushed her wheelchair to the graveside services; my brother's coffin lay under a draped American flag. He was a survivor of the WWII, and the military ceremony, taps, presenting the flag, was moving.

After the ceremony a pastor began a sermon detailing God's beneficence. This guy began by admitting he'd never met my brother, though he sort of knew my SIL because she used to go to his church with a couple of the kids a few dozen years ago.

My brother and I were close when I was young, until just before I joined the army. He was 20 years older than me, and I was the last of the siblings in our family. We grew apart when I got out of the army. I don't know why, for sure, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't his fault, and I couldn't think how to fix it. I have notions that will never be confirmed, since I'm the last of us still alive. Anyhow I believe he still loved me, though we couldn't be left alone together without butting heads about some thing or another. The only thing that worked was when I'd bring my guitar, he'd take out his fiddle, and we'd waste a few hours that way. He was fairly deaf the last few years, but he put his chin on the fiddle and draw his bow, made first drone to set the key--I could almost see his eyeballs vibrating--and he made sounds that gave me chicken skin up both arms--old time Appalachian, Deep River stuff. River trash; black Dutch. He wasn't particularly religious, but he encouraged the kids to go to church with their mother. He was the best man I ever knew.

So, here we are, only a few dozen souls, mostly family, at the small graveyard along the bank of the Kings River. This far down into the valley the river is a dry sandy wash most summers, and will stay that way until late Autumn. Although very old sycamore tress line the riverbed, the cemetery has only a few trees standing, as it was originally cleared for cotton, then grapes, then, around 1930, it was donated, by the three farmers whose land converged there, to the county. My brother's grave is under the only tree in this part of the cemetery, a large fresno (ash) tree; My SIL's plot is next to his.

We were sitting under a canopy covering the spot where she'll go when it's her time. We sing some good songs, old church hymns, about the roll call up yonder, and sweet Jesus's love. They are moving lyrics, stirring melodies. She hasn't looked up from her lap since the Captain knelt before her, gently placed the folded flag into her hands. This preacher gets about four paragraphs into how my brother's accidental fall sent him straight into the arms of Jesus. Before I could catch myself I muttered, "Yeah, well why didn't he grab the ladder?"

I hoped nobody heard me, but the oldest of his sons, standing next to me, snickered. I was sorry for the outburst, of course. When I was with my SIL later that day it was easy to keep my head right. We had a proper wake at their home after the services, and took turns telling stories about "Son." That was what everybody but his kids called him. His sisters' kids called him "Uncle Son." We Okies are sort of like that; they all called our mother "Big Mama." In our family, I am "that Uncle, the one who lived in the mountains."

It was spooky, the closest I'd every seen the family to ritualizing anything except maybe chain smoking among the elder siblings; We talked in turn at first, around a huge kitchen table. Everyone present had sat at that table many times, during many Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays. They each began their remembrance with: "I remember when Son...." "I remember when daddy...." Only non relatives and his widow ever mentioned his name. Nobody at the house that afternoon said anything about how swell it was for Jesus to break the damned rope. None of them said anything about how he'd gone to a better place. The better place was back here, with us.
posted by mule98J at 2:05 PM on December 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


The boilerplate sympathy line of "your loved one is now in a better place" is sufficiently cliché that the Onion recently used it in one of their articles:
The drone reportedly also possesses eight high-powered loudspeakers, which broadcast a series of pre-recorded messages indicating that the deceased is now in a better place and that their family members will henceforth be in the U.S. government’s thoughts and prayers.
posted by theorique at 3:16 AM on December 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


"The drone reportedly also possesses eight high-powered loudspeakers..."

This is much too close to reality for comfortable grinning. I need to consult my sherry.
posted by mule98J at 6:13 PM on December 21, 2015


One of my favorite parts of the Bible is where Jesus’s followers are trying to pull “everything happens for a reason” with Jesus, and he’s incredulous and furious. He talks about a recent horrible accident where many people died after the tower of Siloam fell and crushed them, and he basically calls his listeners out for comforting themselves by the idea that, if everything happens for a reason, then bad things must come to those who deserve them. He gives them a huge “LOL NO” at the very idea.

There is also the fact that literally the entire story of Jesus is increasingly bad things happening to him despite his total innocence. His mom probably had neighbors who were like “oh, honey, it’s too bad your bastard son ended up being a horrible nightmare revolutionary monster who was humiliated and executed by our Roman overlords, but everything happens for a reason!”

One of my favorite sermons from one of my favorite pastors is about Jesus at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus knows that he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead and blow everyone’s minds, but he’s not thinking “tee hee, they will be so surprised and happy and believe in my power! they don't even know that there will be a happy ending in like five minutes!”

No, he’s distraught and furious. It often isn’t translated literally, but he roars with anguish. He’s weeping and screaming, because the agony of the death of a loved one isn’t something to skip over, to gloss over, to brush past. Anyone who can read that story and then tell a grieving person “heaven must have needed an angel! ~~@“ has some pretty terrible reading comprehension, to say the least. (Also zero biblical understanding of angels, but that's a different thing entirely.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:17 PM on December 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


There is also the fact that literally the entire story of Jesus is increasingly bad things happening to him despite his total innocence. His mom probably had neighbors who were like “oh, honey, it’s too bad your bastard son ended up being a horrible nightmare revolutionary monster who was humiliated and executed by our Roman overlords, but everything happens for a reason!”

That is literally the whole point of the narrative. Jesus was supposed to be killed, so that he would be a substitutionary sacrifice for universal sin and thereby accomplish universal salvation. My apologies to any Christians if I've misstated this, by the way.

Here's what it says in Luke 24:45-48
Then opened he their mind, that they might understand the scriptures; and he said unto them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Ye are witnesses of these things.
So yes: Jesus' mother was told that "everything happens for a reason"; and, according to my reading of the Christian scriptures, she was among those who were told that by her son himself. Who is also (according to Christianity) God Himself, and whose joint opinion is therefore of the very highest order.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:43 PM on December 22, 2015


It's awesome that Jesus had that use for his life and death.

Most people (I'd say the overwhelming majority of them) are told platitudes like this when they actually aren't changing the way God deals with the sins of man in the context of his wrath and his need for atonement.
posted by hippybear at 3:05 PM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's awesome that Jesus had that use for his life and death.

Lucky fucker.
posted by bongo_x at 5:42 PM on December 22, 2015


Most people (I'd say the overwhelming majority of them) are told platitudes like this when they actually aren't changing the way God deals with the sins of man in the context of his wrath and his need for atonement.

Oh, totally. Also, and this is very important, it wasn't some hypothetical claim of "there must have been a reason"; it was "there was a reason and this is what it was". And you know, this is the way it really works: people sometimes choose death or the risk of death and we honor them by acknowledging it. You wouldn't say "Oh, there must be some meaning to Zaevion Dobson's death. We must have faith that it is so. Think on that and ye shall be comforted." No, we say "Zaevion Dobson died saving three friends from getting shot. He was a hero at 15." That may (or may not) be some consolation to his family, but it honors the victim and the tragedy of his death. Saying that "there must have been a reason" or that Zaevion "is in a better place now" would just obscure it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:32 PM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


So after reading Baby_Balrog's post--which I am still thinking about a lot--I dug up Mom's copy of "When Bad Things Happen To Good People" and it comes to the same sort of conclusion: God's not omnipotent. God can create some miracles sometime, but most of the time he can't do jack to stop things, and he's probably just as unhappy about the bad shit as we are.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:29 PM on December 22, 2015


Yehuda Amichai: Memorial Day For The War Dead
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:26 AM on December 23, 2015


Joe in Australia, I actually am a Christian, so while you are correct in what you're saying, you are also sort of misinterpreting what I was saying. I wasn't trying to say that Christ didn't die for a reason, but that the New Testament treats it as an act of obscenity when people try to use easy platitudes to maintain their belief in a just world fallacy, especially in the midst of another person's pain.

Jesus knew he had to die, but he still begged God to save him from it, just in case there was an out he couldn't see. He literally started sweating blood as he began going into shock from the agony of knowing what was coming. Knowing that it was for a reason did not save him from unbelievable torment, and so it is absurd for any of us to think that cursorily telling a person in agony "this is happening for a reason!!!" is any help.

Same favorite pastor, different favorite sermon: when calling down fire from heaven doesn't impress anyone and Elijah is still a dead man walking, he runs away and begs to die. The angel of the Lord visits him, and proceeds to cook Elijah a meal, tell him to get some sleep, ask him what's going on (which the angel of the Lord surely knows), lets him vent for awhile. He is present with him. He cares for him physically and psychologically and relationally first. He touches him with kindness and gentleness. And eventually, once Elijah feels better, the angel of the Lord explains that these things have, in fact, happened for a reason. But he doesn't do so until Elijah is ready to hear it, and he doesn't do so as a drive-by platitude. He engages with Elijah on an intimate level in an extended way FIRST.

People who refuse to engage with our grief do not have the right (or the perspective) to tell us what our grief means. But the ones who engage in our suffering, who stand with us, who grieve with us, who carry us through the worst times, who mow our lawns and help make sure our bills are paid, who intervene on our behalf and speak up for us when others complain our grief is too awkward and uncomfortable, who sit with us when the pain breaks over us in waves and waves even years after the loss-- those are the people who would eventually be able to see meaning in our grief, and who could share it with us in a loving and healing way. "Your sorrow has made you kinder, and I love you for finding strength in your suffering," five years after a death, from someone who has known you for decades, is not the slap in the face that "everything happens for a reason!!!" might be from someone who sends you a holiday card every other year.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:48 AM on December 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


God is incapable of preventing the bad things from happening. God relinquished this capacity when God established physics. For whatever reason this was necessary in order for the universe to develop its own, personal, independent consciousness.

Our gods get smaller and weaker as science slowly guides us to reality.
posted by dashDashDot at 12:42 PM on December 23, 2015


Anyone who can read that story and then tell a grieving person “heaven must have needed an angel! ~~@“ has some pretty terrible reading comprehension, to say the least. (Also zero biblical understanding of angels, but that's a different thing entirely.)

It comforts me to think that my grandma is now a flaming wheel with thousands of eyes and wings delivering vengeance to the enemies of the LORD, conveying maddening visions to prophets, etc
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:02 PM on December 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


> Our gods get smaller and weaker as science slowly guides us to reality.

Please spare us the tiresome dorm-room atheist slogans.
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on December 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


Please spare us the tiresome dorm-room atheist slogans.

Did I stumble on a slogan? If so, my apologies, it was unintentional. I was expressing my own thoughts.

Does the idea that there is a god that once created the-universe-and-everything-in-it but is now reduced to a being that would really-love-to-help-but-somehow-can't seem plausible to you?
posted by dashDashDot at 3:48 PM on December 23, 2015


rarely does anyone fashion a straw god that sounds plausible.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:55 PM on December 23, 2015


Does the idea that there is a god that once created the-universe-and-everything-in-it but is now reduced to a being that would really-love-to-help-but-somehow-can't seem plausible to you?

Isn't that Gnosticism? It used to be really popular.

Anyway, theologians seem to agree that God can't produce counterfactuals. If someone's happiness depends, however remotely, on something being simultaneously both true and false then they're just not going to be satisfied. For instance, if someone wants to be both the same person and to be free of (what they see as) character defects ... well, that can't happen.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:58 PM on December 23, 2015


Does the idea that there is a god that once created the-universe-and-everything-in-it but is now reduced to a being that would really-love-to-help-but-somehow-can't seem plausible to you?

The orthodox claim, in the Abrahamic tradition, is that there is a God who created the universe and everything in it but who elected to give human beings free will and is logically unable to simply undo the consequences of evil acts without also undoing free will. Thus the idea that God hates, but can't help, suffering: suffering results, somehow, from free will. (Some variation on the idea of the fall of man is needed to explain how this connection can be made in the case of natural evils as opposed to human evils.)

Most believing Jews, Christians and Muslims think this is plausible, and have thought so for a very long time - this belief really hasn't changed much, so far as I'm aware, and the problem of making sense of it has nothing to do with science and/or progress. It's the same old problem of evil that they were worrying about millennia ago, when no one knew about evolution. The dorm-room platitude is not the problem of evil - which is a very difficult challenge to religion and a very plausible argument for atheism - but the belief that every philosophical challenges to religion is somehow all about Science vs Superstition.
posted by Aravis76 at 4:03 PM on December 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Are you sad when you're playing Mario and Mario falls down a pit and dies? Yes. Would you prefer to play a Mario game where he just bounces out of the pit without any negative consequences? No, that would be boring. Theodicy solved
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:07 PM on December 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks Aravis76 and Joe. What I meant by my remark that "god gets smaller and weaker..." is, it seems the closer people look and the more questions people ask, the more the idea of god seems to shrink. I'm not a believer, when I was much younger and in a dark place, I really tried, but I found the silence overwhelming. Thanks again.
posted by dashDashDot at 4:11 PM on December 23, 2015


it seems the closer people look and the more questions people ask, the more the idea of god seems to shrink.

I think that depends on the people and the questions? At least for me, it went the other way (God seemed like a small and odd idea to me when I was an atheist and the idea grew as I started to believe in it) and I guess converts like Augustine and CS Lewis had similar experiences. There are certainly people - mystics, theologians - who spend their whole lives asking more and more searching questions about God and who don't notice any shrinkage.

But yes, some conceptions of God do fall apart on questioning and there are some questions - especially this one about evil - that put a huge strain on the whole system. I accept that the Christian cross/resurrection/"it's just a mystery" set of moves can seem pretty unsatisfactory in the face of that. But I think science is a red herring either way.
posted by Aravis76 at 4:21 PM on December 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


[...] it seems the closer people look and the more questions people ask, the more the idea of god seems to shrink [...]

A not-unrelated problem is that for most people, the same sort of inquiry seems to eat away at all ethical and philosophical systems, or at least lead their practitioners to perverse conclusions. Utilitarianism, for instance, runs off the rails with arguments such as:
  • Each person, on average, increases the total amount of happiness. Therefore we should have the highest possible population.
  • A painless and unexpected death does not decrease a person's happiness, therefore a poisoner who enjoys murdering people may be acting morally.
  • A subtle and accomplished aesthete with a great capacity for pleasure is worth the sacrifice of many lesser lives.
Deontological systems avoid those problems but the universability of (say) Kantian ethics creates issues of their own - if lying is wrong, would you betray Anne Frank to the Gestapo when they ask you for her address?

At least theism avoids this sort of infinite regress, and supports systems that most of us prefer to the absence of any system at all.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:26 PM on December 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was a Young Rational Know It All once, and like many got much dumber as I got older. The more I learned the more I realized that people much smarter than me had thought about these things their whole lives. Admittedly many come to this realization much quicker. I don’t study religion much, but the more I learn the less I see the hard distinction between science, philosophy, and religion.

There are many narrow minded scientists, just like anyone else. But many will admit that the more we understand about the world the closer we get to what is simply unknowable.

In my simplistic way I compare it to The Sims. Maybe as computers get more advanced, somehow I could try and explain to a character in the game the nature of their being, and the program that is their world. It will be difficult (partly because I am not a programmer) to makes sense of the interactions they have and the consequences. But beyond that I’d have to explain that the program runs in the OS, and that is interacting with hardware which is in a completely different type of dimensional space (not to mention electromagnetism), but really that’s just a insignificant thing that’s sitting on my desk, in my house, on a small planet, in a big universe that I don’t understand. I’m afraid my Sim is not going to really have any way to relate to this, no matter how smart they get.

They’re going to ask me what there was before the program started, how can they see outside of the program, when will it end and why, why does it matter if they set their house on fire, all sorts of nonsense. I’m going to say "Just enjoy your little Sim life and quit pooping in the living room".
posted by bongo_x at 4:52 PM on December 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


I remember The Little Computer People on my C-64, who would come and "tap" on the inside of the computer screen when they were hungry or needed other attention. It's sort of a philosophical moment of realization about levels of existence and power that I've always found charming.

Still an existentialist, though. An optimistic, dancing, Jungian, ritual performing, trying-to-plant-seeds-of-optimism-and-positivity hippie... but an existentialist.
posted by hippybear at 5:06 PM on December 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I was a Young Rational Know It All once, and like many got much dumber as I got older. The more I learned the more I realized that people much smarter than me had thought about these things their whole lives.

Yup.
posted by languagehat at 8:13 AM on December 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


At least theism avoids this sort of infinite regress, and supports systems that most of us prefer to the absence of any system at all.

Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism...
posted by GuyZero at 9:36 AM on December 24, 2015


It's not a very good analogy, because the argument is that belief in theism is incoherent, not that theism demands the genocide of entire races.

A better analogy would be primogeniture. Republicanism is arguably more rational, but if republics are inherently unstable then it's better to be a constitutional monarchy (like the UK) than to have a civil war.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:27 PM on December 24, 2015


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