Let’s explore two ideologies:
1. “Everything happens for a reason.”
2. “I believe in our ability to put ourselves in the best position for general wellbeing.”
These concepts are actually not that different from each other. One, many would say, is a line of thinking that often gets attributed to a few major religions. The other, at least arguably, sounds a bit more grounded and, let’s say, “real-world applicable.”
I think it’s perfectly acceptable to allow either one of these sayings to exist as a pillar in our own interpretations of faith, optimism, or personal development. That being said, I also think both of these sayings have their respective dangers, if taken out of context or if taken “too far.”
But these two sayings also represent, for me, the core differences between those of us who find faith in religion and those of us who find faith elsewhere — between religiousness and, say, agnosticism.
For conciseness and simplicity, let’s call these sayings Number One and Number Two.
Number One represents the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” “it’s all a part of a bigger plan or purpose,” or what’s often called “God’s plan.”
Number Two represents a mentality and belief that portrays “consciously putting forth effort to put ourselves and those around us in a prosperous position, and believing in our ability to do so.”
Now, it’s important to declare that Number One is not saying “I don’t want better for other people.” In fact, it is typically saying just the opposite.
Number One is simply saying that “There is a divine plan that is designed to continuously put me and those around me in a prosperous position, and my efforts to do so are a tribute to, or a reflection of His greatness, because the greater plan is for the betterment of all, and it is bigger than just me and my actions.”
Again, I think these mentalities are saying essentially the same thing, but with slightly different focal points.
It’s also important to dismiss some general ambiguity that surrounds these two statements, by discussing when we tend to hear or use these ideologies, and what we mean when we do.
“Everything Happens for A Reason”
So, when do we hear Number One being used the most?
In my experience, I hear it most when something hasn’t worked out in someone’s favor, right? Perhaps after a break-up, or if we don’t get a text back from someone we’re interested in, or if we don’t get the job we wanted, or if someone dies.
“Everything happens for a reason,” we say.
I think, in this instance, what we mean is: “It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get the result that I was hoping for, but I find solace in the idea that something better may be coming my way.”
This is a nice outlook. It covers the guy that broke your heart and wishes them well. It covers the unknown, as far as where things are headed. It justifies actions that took place for perhaps unclear reasons at the present time. It’s a form of optimism. In this sense, it’s hard to disagree or take issue with.
“I believe in our ability to put ourselves in the best position for general well-being.”
Number Two, on the other hand, is honestly not something we hear people say, partly because it’s not very concise, and also because I’m the one that put it into words for this discussion’s sake.
But we also don’t hear people say this because it’s more of a plan of action or an explanation of what already took place that doesn’t need justification. Number Two is an assertion that people are capable of managing their lives for the better.
This is also a nice sentiment, and really only mildly disagreeable. We will discuss critiques in a moment, but otherwise, I imagine we can agree that Number Two is a positive, community-centric concept.
Critique of Number One
Critique of Number One would certainly introduce the argument that just because “everything happens for a reason,” it doesn’t mean that it’s for a good reason.
This is where religion typically comes into play, at least a little bit. This saying is backed by a belief that a greater power has nothing but the best intentions for those deserving. So if something negative happens to a generally good person, Number One suggests that something positive is on the horizon, however inexplicable the events may be.
It’s a coping mechanism, and really just a wholesome way of saying “shit happens” but with a hint of good things to come.
This mentality may even just be utilized to convey that “God saw something I didn’t and is protecting me.”
- You drop your coffee but maybe if you hadn’t, you would have been hit by a bus.
- Your relationship ends, but it only would have gotten worse, and now you’re free and single to meet a more agreeable match.
- You lost your job, but perhaps a different career awaits
- Someone close to you dies, but perhaps you learn to appreciate those that remain a little bit more
I suppose my particular quarrel with this concept is that it can come off as a bit entitled. What makes you so sure that you’re a good person?
It’s a feeling that we’re all the protagonists of our own story. We all think we have good intentions, partly because we’re a bit biased, but also because we have a tendency to lie to ourselves when we don’t have the best of intentions.
We’re imperfect. But that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t better things coming our way.
One reason better things may come our way after negative experiences is that they serve as a reality check, and we realize how urgent it is to get our shit together.
So when we say “everything happens for a reason,” we may even be planting a seed in our own minds that gives a megaphone to our conscience. Whether or not you choose to believe that the megaphone is some sort of deity makes no difference.
Critique of Number Two
Critique of Number Two would run into the idea that perhaps people are intrinsically ill-natured or selfish, that they don’t always have others’ best interests in mind.
Though I think there is some truth to the idea that sometimes people can be like this, I believe that it’s possible for people to not be.
“Go, and sin no more.”
It could also be argued that one can’t foresee every possible outcome to every possible action, so how do you know that your choices and actions are for the best?
But we, as humans, can only act on what we know. I think we’re wired to act in what we believe is our species’ best interest.
Again, we all believe that we are the protagonist in our own story. We believe that the majority of our actions are justifiable, agreeable, for the better, or dare I say, forgivable.
- Justifiable. That man who broke the law, speeding to work, just this once: he was careful, and though he put himself and others at risk, he weighed the consequences and chose to increase his speed so he wouldn’t lose his job.
- Agreeable. That woman with the full shopping cart who let you cut her in line at the grocery store: you only had one or two items, and it was objectively more efficient. That was nice of her.
- For the better. That guy that broke your heart: he did so because he felt it was in his best interest to no longer be with you. Though he may have handled it poorly, he was looking out for himself, and you.
- Forgiveness. That girl who made fun of her classmate because she wore glasses and dressed differently: it wasn’t right, and bullying has negative moral connotations, but maybe she later feels bad and asks for forgiveness. She deserves it, right?
My point is that, yes, we’ve all been wronged at some stage or another, and we’ve most likely wronged or endangered others in some way. But that doesn’t make us eternal sinners, malicious, irrevocable, or intrinsically ill-natured.
This is an important level of objectivism to keep in mind, as it instills the idea that everyone is of equal importance, generally.
Or, in other words, by understanding that, you’ve created a sustainable foundation of empathy and placed yourself in a good position to achieve a general sense of happiness and wellbeing. And you’ve recognized that you are no more important than anyone or anything else.
The Dangers of Misinterpretation
Simply put, the danger of misusing, overusing, or misunderstanding Number One is on one side, complacency, and on the other, entitlement. When you become accustomed to the idea that
A. you are a good person, and
B. there is a greater power who is handling everything for you
you put a lot of things at risk. For example, “letting Jesus take the wheel” on a highway is literally almost never a good idea. We all know it’s not that cut and dry, but “everything happens for a reason” is great as long as you don’t invite negative outcomes with any sort of regularity.
And the idea that you’re owed wellbeing because you’re a good person, or that you’re due for some simply because you’ve endured negative scenarios is a dangerous line of thinking.
On the other hand, the dangers of Number Two, put simply, are naivety and egotism.
When you believe that everyone is doing the best they can to put themselves and those around them in better positions for general wellbeing, you can really get screwed over. This is because, as we covered, people make mistakes. Sometimes people just suck. And the sheer volume of it culminates and echoes off of everyone until you inescapably get hit with someone’s suckiness.
Additionally, when you believe that you have everyone’s best interests in mind and that you have a god-like ability to facilitate success, it can go to your head a bit.
But if everyone lives according to Number One, it’s highly unlikely everyone would agree on what God’s plan is, and there will undoubtedly be a contradiction. Does God love and want the best for everyone? Was the Holocaust in God’s plan? Was September 11th? Are the bombs that the United States has dropped on the Middle East in God’s plan? Whose side is he on, and when?
The religious would contend that one must have faith in God’s plan.
I maintain that we must have faith in ourselves and what we believe is best.
I’m not sure if these are opposing viewpoints or not.
So what can we do?
Resort to objectivity, logic, and truth. It’s the only thing that we can do, given that information, or lack of information. We can only do what we believe is best, with the information we have at hand.
“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; but if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
In essence, I believe this inevitably leaves us with Number Two.
We’re not perfect, and we’re not all-knowing. All we can do is continue to ask questions and try to place ourselves and those around us in good scenarios to the best of our ability. Through this, we can learn to mitigate negative environments.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
I’m not here to argue for or against a belief in how we’re thrown into the world. Whether you like to say “everything happens for a reason” or “I believe in our ability to put ourselves in the best position for general wellbeing,” you may feel that faith in something is needed either way.
If you feel you need faith, establish faith in something. Nurture it. But it doesn’t matter what it is.
It doesn’t matter because here — in this life and on this planet — eventually, you’ll have to trust yourself.
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