Why Everything Shouldn’t Happen For a Reason and My Attitude Is Not All-Important.
My name is Mary. I’m a non-believer in recovery. This makes me weird.
There’s really no pinpointing the cause of my faithlessness, which I refer to as “agnosticism” on some days and “atheism” on others. (“Atheism” is — in all fairness — probably the more accurate term, given that none of my spiritual beliefs involve “God” per se, and theism is — literally — the belief in God, specifically.) Even if I could pinpoint What to Term My Faithlessness, though, I’d still struggle to explain why I became a non-believer, in large part because my unbelief was not exactly some mind-altering shift from any previous personal view. At best, my experience of theism growing up was sort of a “wouldn’t it be nice” approach, in which I desperately wanted to have faith and worked very actively to develop it, without ever really succeeding. In my early teens, I listened to Carolyn Arends, watched Touched by An Angel, and more or less prayed, meditated, and devoted my li’l heart out. But I still didn’t believe. And eventually — much like my aspirations to become a gymnast (thank you 1996 Olympics) or my aspirations to be fluent in every language, ever — my aspirations for faith fell comfortably off my list of present goals. Only later, looking back, did I realize I had shifted from “not believing in spite of my best efforts” to active, choiceful non-belief. And while I stand by my earlier statement that it’s impossible to pinpoint what turned me from a reluctant heathen into a Heathen, full-force — I know some of what keeps me in this camp.
At the top of my list of Things I Do Not Believe is a message I hear nearly every day: Everything happens for a reason.
The two most common versions of this that Icome across– in general and in recovery communities — are that everything happens because of God (i.e. God has a plan and this is part of it) and that everything happens because of you — as a result of your individual attitudes and choices. The arguments occur separately at times, but can also supplement each other. Essentially, because the “everything happens because of God” argument suggests that any given situation occurs because of God’s plan, it allows for an easy follow-up argument that any ill feelings we have about this situation (e.g. anger, betrayal, grief, etc) exist because we can’t understand God’s plan. The problem, then, is still our attitude — our lack of faith, our unwillingness to trust God to have our backs, etc. In short, our situation sucks because we don’t trust God to have something awesome up God’s proverbial sleeve.
The “attitude” argument also shows up solo, without any Higher-Power references. It’s the basis of such common recovery stand-bys as “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” (Eleanor Roosevelt) and “you have the power to create your reality” (Every Self-Help Book, Ever). The attitude argument, like its bedmate “everything happens for a reason” has every intention of being empowering, and that’s important to realize. This perspective, by many accounts, works for people because it restores personal agency. It suggests that we have the capacity to create our experience; if things are bad, we have the power to make them better. That’s no small offering, and it makes sense that so many of us bite onto it — hook, line, and sinker. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that they’re in charge, or that — at the very least — some benevolent God is in charge, and that God is advocating for our best interest, even better than we could advocate for ourselves?
To be honest, every atom of my control-freak self would happily buy into this logic. I would love to be in charge of my own life (at the very least), and I would love to believe that — when I’m not in charge — it’s because Someone Else has me covered better than I can cover myself. The problem I have is that this logic can be abused in pretty unthinkable ways, as it was the numerous times people told me my roommate’s death was Meant to Be or this past January when the a Senate-hopeful claimed that rape and incest survivors should have enough faith in God’s plan not to seek abortions.
[Insert my intense WTF response here.]
Now rational believers are likely to draw some lines, agreeing with me that this is an abuse of the “everything happens for a reason” attitude, which suggests the attitude can be used properly without the same level of harm. You can claim that God had a reason for allowing natural disasters without suggesting that Hurricane Katrina was the justified punishment for “vice” in Lousiana or that the war in Iraq is our punishment for allowing Teh Gays to take over America*. You can also fall into one of the not-quite-everything-is-part-of-God’s-plan camps, which tend toward blaming Bad Stuff on our free will, some devilish Big Bad Wolf, or other non-godlike entities. You can even rewrite the original adage to read something like, “We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it” (Robert Urich) — another favorite among a lot of recovery folk.
On an individual level, I happen to think this revision is a lot more useful. It points out that some experiences — abuse, rape, loss, earthquakes, et cetera — are not things we consent to experience. And it does so without removing our own power to make decisions about how these experiences function in our lives. However, it still glosses over some of the messier elements of those reactions. For instance, while I may be able to “choose my attitude,” following an abusive relationship, I am not able to choose whether I develop PTSD in response to the trauma. Likewise, while I may be able to “avoid negativity” following a house fire or a hurricane, I don’t have the same level of choice when it comes to avoiding homelessness. Which brings me to the two biggest issues I take with the notion that everything happens for a reason: victim-blaming and social irresponsibility.
The notion that everything happens for a reason makes it really, really easy to blame victims**. If we’re responsible for what happens to us, without exception, than we’re responsible even for those things which we cannot control. Similarly, if God is responsible, then — although we’re not responsible for the original situation — we’re responsible for how long it’s taking us to recover from it, for any ongoing difficulties we’re having as a result, and for the less-than-pastel-colored emotions we still feel. The major issue with this is that when we’re responsible (or God’s responsible) for our circumstances — no one else is.
When Sharron Angle claimed that rape and incest victims should have more faith, she took the onus of responsibility off people who rape and who perpetrate sexual abuse and put it on victims. She also erased her own responsibility — as a public official (and, I’d argue, as a human being) — to work for rape prevention. We know from our personal experiences that part of what makes “an attitude makeover” difficult is giving up the opportunity to point the finger at someone else. (An act which — similar to the right to feel off-limits emotions such as anger and sadness — I would argue is often necessary, at least for a period of time.) What we often fail to point out is that focusing on someone’s attitude toward their situation or their ability to choose a better response erases our own culpability in other people’s lives. If I believe that the people of New Orleans deserve what they got (or that they have the power to make their situation better and are merely failing to use that power) — then I no longer have the responsibility to take action on their behalf. If I believe the “real problem” with a friend who lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one is that he’s in a rut of self-pity and depression, then I’m not responsible for what happens to him. I may choose to give him a motivational speech to try and improve his energy, but I’m unlikely to work toward greater resources. And — as a faux-social-worker — resources and concrete programs are what I’m talking about here. Because when it comes to economic recovery and joblessness, to natural disasters and unnatural ones, to rape prevention/ response and every other Thing I Do Not Control, I’m not interested in an attitude adjustment. I’m interested in resources.
The notion that our attitude creates our circumstances fundamentally supports an individualistic perspective. It undermines the extent to which your decisions and the social institutions you and I create together affect me. According to this view, I affect myself, end of story. Or — in the alternate spin — I affect myself and God affects me. But if God’s in charge, it becomes very, very easy to hand everything over to God, including social change. And while there are plenty of theistic people out there leading the rallies for social justice, there are as many (if not more) who think that God’s ability to handle things erases their own responsibility to take action and to take responsibility.
What’s bizarre about this is that a number of religions and religious people firmly support a notion of interdependence. They talk about the human race as a family, they refer to each as “brother” and “sister,” they talk about how a butterfly flapping its wings in one hemisphere has effects across the world. And yet, perhaps because God is (generally) the parent in this metaphorical family, God is the one responsible. Not us.
I’m not interested in dismantling anyone’s faith, and I’m not interested in taking away any idea that a person finds empowering. But I do know this idea was never empowering for me. (For starter’s, the hands-down, most-effective thing I did after my roommate’s death was accept that she should never have died at 17, and to begin facing how much it truly, unequivocally sucked that she had.) So, I’m interested in pointing out that these ideas are not always empowering, and — additionally– that they can be counter-productive to our goals of responsible social change. It’s important to realize that — whether or not we mean it to, whether or not we intend an entirely different effect — arguing that everything happens for a reason fundamentally suggests that everything that happens should… when some things — very simply — should not. Some things we have a public responsibility to prevent.
I mentioned earlier that — a few eons past — I watched Touched By An Angel. I left out the fact that I watched it obsessively and can — to this day — recite large chunks from the show’s fourth season by memory. I held onto the formula of Touched By An Angel in a very visceral way, hoping with every fiber of my being that some purely good person would swoop down out of nowhere to put my life back on track. One of the (very) few moments I remember having with the messages TBAA delivered occurred when Roma Downey’s character, Monica, confronted Tess — her “supervisor” in the angelic work hiearchy (played by Della Reese) — about the fact that God allowed terrible things to happen when he could, quite clearly, stop them. I remember being all ears for Tess’s response, every time I rewatched that scene. I always seemed to forget how she replied between viewings… perhaps because her response was not a response at all. Tess’s explanation — that God could heal the tragedy God had failed to prevent — failed to unpack the legitimate question of why God allows Bad Stuff in the first place. God’s ability to do good with bad things doesn’t automatically negate God’s responsibility to prevent them anymore than our working for resources for rape survivors negates our responsibility to work for prevention, or our ability to make ammends with a friend we’ve harmed negates our responsibility for having harmed them. Touched By An Angel rarely lacked a direct response to other theological questions, so the disconnect between Monica’s accusation and Tess’s defense strikes me, now, as telling. The notion that God can see us through anything — (see Mother Teresa’s “I know God wouldn’t give me anything I can’t handle; I just wish he didn’t trust me so much”) — doesn’t address why a specific Awful Thing happened in the first place, what resources we need to work through it, or how we can keep it from happening to other people. When God can see us through, it becomes Our Own Damn Fault that we’re not okay, which strikes me as another Awful Thing, one we could prevent but fail to…
I’m honestly not arguing here that we have no power over our own circumstances or that we’re all responsible for superheroic, world-saving feats. Rather, I’m suggesting that our power is social, as well as individual. For me, it’s as empowering to engage in activism, in the concrete work that goes toward solving social problems, as it is to claim that I’m responsible for how my day goes. Actually, it’s more empowering — at least, for me, personally. It’s more empowering because — paradoxically — in allowing the world to be bigger than my own influence, I make room for everything that I experience. I make room for my anger, my disappointment, my grief, my trauma, and my fear. I also make room for all of your experiences — however you experience them — and for both of us to have power in the world we share. The power I experience isn’t a magical power to exert my own energy onto the world and thereby change its make-up. It’s the power to recognize what in the status quo is not acceptable, and to work together to form our own plan for how to change it.
For a lot of people, this process will always involve God or religion or some other larger-than-life force. I’ll leave that to the theists. But I hope that all of us, theists included, can take some more responsbility in the future to think critically through the adages and metaphors we offer up when things take a turn for the worse. As for me, I’ll stick to believing that good things can come from bad things — and even that we can actively work to “make good” out of bad situations — without going so far as to rename the “bad” things good. I’ll stand by still another quote — Sartre’s “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you” — which recognizes both our agency and our interdependence. And I’ll keep adding that all-important caveat: freedom is also what we do for each other.
*I’m always curious when we queers supposedly took control. I would love to have more access to this rampant power I’m supposedly using to ruin the world.
**Victim isn’t always the most respectful word to use, as many (although not all) consider it disempowering, but since I’m specifically talking about situations that happen to us in spite of our own choices/ decisions/ power, I’m choosing it here, purposefully.