Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with their particular teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, as long as they do not understand it. — Alfred Adler
The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a perniciously irksome expression. It would be better to say that everything happens because of assorted causation, but I suppose that doesn’t have enough poetic appeal. For example, if a tornado descends on a family of five—sparing only the youngest child—we should comprehend this misfortune as being caused by a rotating column of air near the earth’s surface (a tornado will demolish a home or community center with as much indifference as it would a liquor store). There is no need to say that the tornado happened for the child to learn a valuable lesson about bereavement while creating an opportunity to connect with an estranged relative. Likewise, it’s not very nice to tell children born with neurofibromatosis or leukemia that it happened for a reason. Manufacturing meaning to explain tragedies is not why tragedies occur in the first place; rather, the “meaning” represents a psychological buffer that promotes self-satisfied solace (albeit temporarily) in the wake of destruction. However, this type of specious perspective is short-sighted, conspicuously simplistic, and can appear distastefully insensitive to those whose suffering cannot be ameliorated. When used as a teleological anodyne, creative interpretations of trauma are simultaneously dishonest and intellectually bankrupt.
False consolation and convenient narratives, however well-intended, prolong our misunderstanding of reality and compromise human resilience for enduring future catastrophes. Furthermore, to say that everything happens for a reason diminishes the horror and sociopolitical responsibility with such historical atrocities as the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans, slavery, and the Spanish Inquisition. There is no cosmic blueprint hanging on a ledge in the outer reaches of space providing intrinsic meaning to all random and non-fortuitous events. This is not to say, however, that wisdom cannot be gained from traumatic experiences. More importantly, we must learn to adapt to experiences that are not imbued with grandiose meaning via radical acceptance.
In conclusion, if your observational propositions do not align with reality, you may want to adjust your interpretive lens (altering reality is not an option). Cultivating compassion and solidarity starts with not lying to ourselves, or anyone else, about the nature of circumstance.
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and our language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. — Ludwig Wittgenstein
A recurring deluge of exasperation happens whenever I hear eyebrow-raising claims made by woo-prone clinicians coupled with the astonishing credulity of uncritical clients. In an earlier post entitled Seductive Obfuscation, I described the misappropriation and misapplication of scientific language to support specious propositions in a therapeutic setting. Unscrupulous offerings of hope are available in surplus for those who solicit therapy for a sense of meaning or purpose. Likewise, the predisposition of some clinicians to lobby for logical fallacies is only outmatched by the client’s subconscious fear of accepting what David Hume referred to as the “is.” Subsequently, the temptation to manufacture meaning out of the meaningless demonstrates the human desire to anthropomorphize life events through a fog-infused lens of promiscuous teleology. As the playwright Arthur Miller pointed out, the tendency to project ourselves onto the universe is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. The curiously human inclination to retrospectively connect the dots—even when the dots are randomly indifferent—is a remnant from the associative learning of our infancy. Pareidolia (an image or sound that is perceived as significant) is the illusory-inundated cousin of apophenia (attributing connections to patterns of meaningless data), and false positives are the ancestral side-effects of hyperactive agency detection (i.e., type 1 errors in cognition).
More troubling is the level of self-deception among therapists who tacitly or openly endorse fictitious cognitive buffers to attenuate existential anxiety. A recent examination of the willingness to apply equal-opportunity meaning to coincidence, objects, patterns, or circumstance is deconstructed in Australian philosopher Tamas Pataki’s Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire.¹ Pataki (unrelated to George Pataki), refers to the radical extension of human agency as “intentionalism.” In relation to theory of mind in psychology, the intentional idiom provides greater levels of interpersonal awareness. However, intentionality can quickly lead to fantasy and wishful delusions when extended beyond its social value. In other words, assuming the intentions of others does not imply that all things have intention. The result of unbridled intentionalism is a kind of “animism on steroids” that only serves to reassure a gullible and anxious mindset.
Purpose doesn’t have to be etched in the cosmos to give consciousness intrinsic value; the emergence of consciousness is its own reward. As the historian Peter Watson reiterates, it’s essential to recognize and accept the significance of our insignificance. Furthermore, if our insignificance is interpreted as a source of despair (aptly described by Ann Druyan as “Post-Copernicus Stress Syndrome”), perhaps we should reassess the foundational integrity of our reality-based coping mechanisms. Humility is the concession that we are a complex manifestation of the elements rather than being central to the elements. Only then can we know what it means to be “connected” to the world around us.
1. Pataki, Tamas; Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire. 2014. London: Routledge. 212. ISBN: 978-0-415-82292-3.