Why I Ditched the Belief That Everything Happens for a Reason, And What I do Now Instead
Once upon a time, I believed everything happens for a reason.
“Tianyi.” My grandmother used to say this to me in Chinese when I was little. It means “the will of heaven”, or “God’s will”.
“Tianyi” was our way of explaining all the bad things that happened in life. Things like my father walking out on the family when I was five, the great flood that devastated our city when I was ten, or the sudden illness that struck me when I was nineteen.
Under the influence of this notion of “Tianyi”, I came to accept the belief that everything in life happens for a reason, even if that reason never comes to light. Somehow, in some mysterious way we can’t comprehend, the suffering we endure in this life all has its meaning and purpose—perhaps to teach us a lesson, to show us a path forward, or better yet—to steer us away from a heartache far worse than the pain we’re experiencing now.
But somewhere along the way, I started to question this belief.
It started around the time when I was first diagnosed with cancer. In the years following my treatment and eventual recovery, I gradually shifted away from the idea and learned to embrace another perspective—one that I consider more fluid and empowering.
What is this new perspective, you ask? Hang tight. I’ll reveal it in a bit, but first I want to tell you why I stopped believing everything happens for a reason.
Believing Everything Happens for a Reason Can Become a Crutch
I’ve seen it too many times. A broken marriage, a failed career move, or a missed opportunity—instead of probing for the real cause that led to the undesirable outcome, people shrug their shoulders and say “everything happens for a reason”, and call it a day.
I had a friend who used to do this after every setback.
In the span of three years, she lost a total of three different jobs. At first we thought it was just bad luck, but over time, it became apparent to those around her that there was something more going on than meets the eye.
After the third time she was let go, another good friend of hers and I both tried to tell her, in the most constructive way possible, that she needed to either upgrade her skills in her field or consider whether the work was a good fit for her. But our words fell on deaf ears.
She lost her third job due to a bad judgment call she had made at work. But instead of focusing on improving her problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities, she texted us a few weeks later and said these words:
“The company’s major project went south, and I heard the company’s going to fold in a few months. I’m glad I got out now. I guess everything does happen for a reason.”
A year later, on her next job, she made another bad judgment call that struck at the core of her profession, and almost lost her job again. It was sad and disappointing to see that she had learned absolutely nothing from her previous experience and made no effort to change.
It dawned on me then that for some people, “everything happens for a reason” can become a real crutch and stunt any meaningful growth.
Her experience prompted me to examine my own approach to dealing with failures and mistakes.
Was I also relying too much on the belief of “everything happens for a reason”, and not taking enough personal responsibility for my shortcomings? I wondered. And as much as I hated to admit it, I was.
So now, instead of using “everything happens for a reason” as a way to comfort myself when things go wrong, I try to push myself to dig deeper into the issue and look for opportunities to initiate change.
Thinking Everything Happens for a Reason Can Worsen Your Anxiety and Self-Doubt
Whenever bad things happen in life, we expect there to be something behind all the pain and suffering to make them all worthwhile in the end.
So we spend a vast amount of energy into finding a purpose, a life lesson, or an “ah-ha” moment that would take the sting off and help us accept the situation without screaming and kicking. Kind of like the candy you got after getting a shot at the doctor’s office when you were a toddler.
And that’s a big part of believing “everything happens for a reason”—even if we can’t see the nuggets of reward in the midst of our pain, we have to trust that they’re there and we just have to find them.
But what if I told you that this belief that there must be a reason behind our suffering or consolation for our pain can sometimes do more harm than good?
The other day, while talking to a coworker who’s been dealing with a tough mental health condition that has plagued him for the better part of the last three decades, he said something that struck a chord with me:
“There’s got to be a reason to make what I’m going through worthwhile, but I just can’t find it, and it bothers me. I feel maybe I’m just not insightful enough to discover the meaning behind it all.”
Because I remember feeling the exact same way for a long time after I was diagnosed with cancer. I tried really hard to find the grand purpose behind this awful thing that fell on top of me from out of nowhere—because you know, I thought it would make me feel better about being dangerously ill, shape me into a better person, so on and so on. But the harder I looked, the worse I felt.
And as time went on, anxiety and self-doubt started to set in.
“Why haven’t I found my purpose? Why don’t I feel more at peace with what’s happening? And why haven’t I had a life-changing revelation?”
I used to think this all the time. And it made me feel inadequate—like I was letting myself, and the people who saved me, down.
Then one day, I decided that something had to change. I realized I had to end this fruitless chase for the elusive reason behind my suffering and stop trying to look for a meaning, an epiphany, or a lesson.
I focused, instead, on things I could control—like what time I got up in the morning and went to sleep at night, how I spent the time between various medical appointments, and what kind of attitude I showed towards others around me.
I stopped looking for meaning and started creating meaning. And as soon as I made that shift, I started to feel better.
Everything Happens for a Reason Has a Dark Side
Nowadays, whenever I hear the phrase “everything happens for a reason”, I can’t help but shudder a little inside.
Well, it’s easy to say that when you stub your toe while gardening or break an arm in a skiing accident. It’s oddly comforting and it satisfies our innate desire to find meaning and order in a world of chaos.
But think how it would sound to the grieving families who have lost their children to mass school shootings, to the innocent millions whose lives are ravaged by the hellfires of war each year, or to the traumatized victims of sexual violence? Can we say then, without a shred of remorse or doubt, that everything happens for a reason?
I know I can’t.
I can’t look at anyone who’s just had their entire life ripped apart and tell them with a peace of mind that this happened for a reason, they just don’t know it yet.
I can’t say to them, without feeling like a fraud, that it’s all part of a grand plan and everything’s going to be okay.
And I certainly can’t tell them, without hating myself, that this is “Tianyi”.
What would I really be saying if I told them everything that happened to them happened for a reason?
This was meant to happen.
You had to endure this.
You somehow brought this onto yourself.
Is that what I really want to portray to another human being who’s in pain?
And that’s the dark side of “everything happens for a reason”—while it can ease our frustrations for minor upsets in life, can it really soothe our soul if we’re in unfathomable pain? Or does it make things worse by suggesting that we’re not only helpless against our fate, but also perhaps the cause of it?
That’s not the attitude I want to approach life with. Rather than looking for comfort in a grand, mysterious plan, I want to focus on moving forward and enjoying life’s good moments—because there are many despite all the bad ones.
Instead of Everything Happens for a Reason, Here’s What I Believe In Now
At the beginning of this post, I said I would share the new perspective I have on why bad things happen to us.
And that is this:
Not everything will happen for a reason. Not every moment of pain will reward us with a lesson worth remembering. And not every tumble into a dark abyss will lead to a breakthrough.
But that’s okay.
I accept that things will go sideways in life.
Instead of brushing them away as another unpleasant dish served by the universe, I try to dig deeper and look at how I can take personal responsibility for growth and change.
Instead of trying to look for a purpose or reason behind the setback, I focus on things within my control and find ways to create meaning.
And instead of telling myself that whatever hell I went through was all part of a big plan that I just don’t understand, I try to focus my eyes on the path forward and all the wonderful things in this life that deserve my gratitude.
And with this approach, I feel more free, more powerful, and more capable of happiness than I’ve ever felt before.
Do you believe in everything happens for a reason? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below, all opinions welcomed!