A friend used to tell me, when things were driving me crazy: “Don’t worry. It’ll all come out in the wash.” I always took that to mean that things tend to work out ok. There are two ways to get there, though – there’s the belief that things work out ok because we, as a species, are pretty good at making the best of wherever we end up. That’s a positive outlook.
And then there’s the belief that there is a plan. That everything happens for a reason.
I think this is an untenable position. Well, maybe it’s true, that there is a reason, but the idea that it’s always a good reason, or that there is a benign hand guiding the universe – this I find very difficult to swallow. A good reason for massacres in Darfur? For race-based persecution in Sri Lanka? Try telling a 6 year old refugee who watched her family massacred that everything happens for a reason. A good reason for genocide? For World War 2 and the persecution of the Jews? A good reason for cancer? I think this is taking our ability to make the best of things a little too far.
It may be a kind of anthropocentric arrogance, to assume that the world has been put here for our personal benefit, and everything will work out ok for us. It also puts an untenable load of blame on the shoulders of the bereaved, the afflicted and the persecuted. “Why me? What have I done to deserve this torture? Was it the lolly I stole when I was 3?” What an appalling load of guilt to place on the shoulders of someone already suffering unimaginable horrors.
Throughout history we have desperately struggled to find reasons, and ways to make sense of the world. Books such as “when bad things happen to good people” try to bring comfort, but seem to raise more questions than they lay to rest. “Why me?” “Why her?” “Why him?”… Above all, can I find a reason why what happened to them couldn’t possibly happen to me? How can I hold myself and my loved ones immune from the fate that randomly drops catastrophe on others?
When something bad happens to someone we know, it is natural to search for reasons to reassure us that it couldn’t happen to us, and for reasons to hope. Someone dies unexpectedly of heart disease? That’s terrible, but I exercise and eat healthily, so I’ll be fine. It couldn’t happen to me. Got cancer? That’s ok, if you have a positive attitude you can beat it. Never mind that it places a burden of intense guilt on the shoulder of anyone who has cancer and feels sad and scared. “You have to be positive! It could save your life!” By all means do your best to be positive and fight to your last breath. But don’t feel guilty for feeling sad and overwhelmed. That’s called being human.
I have never understood the idea of the power of prayer, either. If you pray for the people in Darfur, they will be saved? What kind of omniscient being would only save suffering people if you beg?
I don’t argue with anyone’s right to believe in whatever they want. But I do object to being told that everything happens for a reason. What reason could there be for the torture of children? What reason could there be for companies getting fat on the profits from child slavery? (It happens even today. Make sure your tea, coffee and chocolate are fair trade!)
The real problem with the benign plan theory is that it allows the malicious, the stupid, and the bigoted to use the “it’s a judgement” line whenever something bad happens to some group of people they disapprove of. AIDS? It’s a judgement on homosexuals. Hurricane Katrina? It’s a judgement on that morals of that modern day Gomorrah, New Orleans. It’s God’s punishment – you must have done something to deserve it.
Of course, there are plenty of people who believe that there is a plan, yet would never dream of using it as a judgement of anyone. Caring, loving people who make the world a better place on a daily basis. I have no argument with them. I can’t agree with their beliefs, but I can happily work beside them to try to make the world a fairer, happier place.
It may be true that life wasn’t meant to be easy, but in my view, life wasn’t meant. The meaning is what you create yourself. Leave the world a little better than you found it – that’s a meaning of life that I can really believe in.