Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Reason

Note: this post deals with a philosophy that many people hold very dear. I don't mean to offend anyone, I am simply explaining my own take on the randomness of life. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so feel free to disagree.

I was tidying up my room the other day, letting my mind wander to things that I might do or might happen to me in the future when I can get out and do things, and I found myself slipping into what used to be a familiar image. You see, when I think about "destiny" or things that are "meant to be" in my life I always associate them with this image of two comets colliding in outer space (yeah, I'm weird like that). The idea is that the paths these two objects take lead to their inevitable collision, like a person and the path set out for them in life. The word "destiny" even popped into my head. And then I immediately stopped that line of thought.

You know this is bullshit, I said to myself.

"Everything happens for a reason" and "destiny" are lies that we tell ourselves to try to make sense out of a very confusing world, to help us when we are hurting emotionally or down on our luck. It makes us feel better to think that there was a reason these terrible things happened. The idea that life is random and that sometimes bad things just happen is scary. We prefer to think that there is some kind of grand plan, that God or The Universe or whatever deity or power you happen to believe in is looking out for you and plotting the course that your life will take. Even if this higher power doesn't influence every small action that each person takes, we like to think that the big things are planned out, destined, foreordained.

This is, quite frankly, a load of crap.

Let me illustrate my point with a few examples. A few years ago a mother and her two children were killed in the middle of the day by a drunk driver, leaving a grieving father behind. More recently a house burned down, killing three children. The mother had gone out with her sister to get a space heater because their heat had been turned off, leaving her seven children alone. According to the "destiny" theory those poor, innocent children were always marked for termination by the higher being. What possible reason could there be for that? What purpose does that serve? What about my friends - Tali, Steve, Sean, Chris, Ayanna - who died of cancer? Why did they get cancer? Why did they get cancers that killed them? Why did I have four friends relapse last year? What reason is there for the suffering, both physical and mental, that they, all of them, have had to endure time and time again? What about construction workers killed in work accidents, or a woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary after 30 years of marriage?

There is no reason. These things just happen, and they suck. There is no divine plan behind it. God is not poking His or Her finger in our lives, dictating who will be hit by a bus so that they can meet the love of their life in the hospital, or who will lose their job as a factory worker and later find fulfillment as a gardener. The events in our lives do not happen in order to bring about something better. They just happen.

I used to be a card-carrying member of the "everything happens for a reason" camp. Even when I got cancer I could find reasons why it had happened, that the path my life was taking post-cancer would eventually lead me to a better life than I would have had without cancer. It is true that I have met amazing people because of cancer and that I probably wouldn't have lived in France for two years had I never been sick, but I did not get cancer in order to meet them and end up in France for two years. Those are the ways I made lemonade out of lemons; they are results entirely of my own making. There is a scientific explanation for why I got cancer that involves random genetic mutations and the like, but no grand cosmic plan that required me to get cancer in order to lead me to my destiny. There is never a reason for suffering.

The only "reason" for any of the bad things that happen to us in life - illness, heartbreak, loss of a loved one, loss of a home - is the reason we give to it. We can try to make the best of a bad situation, as I did by making friends within the cancer community, and we can use these events to change ourselves and our lives. THAT is what gives meaning to tragedy, THAT is what gives a reason to these events. Rather than think that this bad event happened in order for you to find your destiny, go out and find it on your own! Don't just wallow and trust in fate to show you the way. Be proactive in making a reason for what has happened to you!

The best example of this philosophy are Sean's parents. Sean passed away a few years ago after battling cancer for seven years. I can't even imagine how painful it must be to lose a child. But his parents took their grief and turned it into good, setting up a foundation to research treatments for Ewing's Sarcoma. The foundation also sponsors many programs for teenagers and young adults at the hospital where he was treated.

I have resolved to live for the ones who are no longer here. There is nothing fair about the fact that they are dead and I am not. I am not better or nicer, I don't have more people who love me or who are praying for me. It could just as easily be me. So I try to live for them, too. If I have a difficult decision to make I often think of what they would do. The answer is almost always "go for it! Take every opportunity you can to be happy and experience life!" This may make me seem a little crazy to some, but I believe very strongly in this principle, for everyone. I also know that whatever I end up doing as a career it has to be something that directly helps others. I have been given a gift of a third chance at life, and I have to prove that I deserve it. I cannot waste my life doing something that has no impact on anyone; I feel obligated to work for others. That's part of the reason why I liked teaching so much. I could see every day that I was making a difference in the lives of those kids.

That is my reason. I try to help people and live life to the fullest so that they didn't die for nothing and to prove that I am worthy of the fact that I'm still here. Of course the fact that I'm still here is random, too. The good things are just as random and inexplicable as the bad.

I find the idea of a God who creates good destinies for some people and unhappy destinies for others to be wrong and nauseating. How horrible and unfair that would be! Especially when the destiny is not at all connected to the goodness or badness of the person (I think we can all agree the world would be a better place if Hitler had died of cancer at 22 instead of my friend Steve). Because I believe in a kind and caring God I have to reject this idea of "reasons" and "destiny."

The imagery of the two comets on a collision course is perhaps not entirely wrong. Perhaps my new paradigm should be two space ships, dodging comets and asteroids, constantly self-correcting, eventually colliding through their efforts to not crash into Pluto. Totally random, totally by chance, completely unforseen, occuring because of other decisions they made independently.

This is not meant to be a negative post. I'm just explaining a bit of my own philosophy and how I live with all the tragedies that constantly surround me. I'm looking forward to reading your comments.


Leesa said...

Hey Mir...

I really agree with your philosophy... esp. the part about a fair and just God...
I don't know what death has in store for us.. .Some people people it's the beginning of something better... Some people believe we come back again as someone/something else... and some people that when we die, we die, and that's it!
I don't really KNOW what I believe anymore.. because I used to have a really strong faith in God... even when my mom was sick/dying/gone... After she passed, I felt like--- how could God take someone who still had soooo much life to life-- so many people who loved her... while there are sooo many BAD and EVIL people living and thriving on this earth.. doing their bad and evil deeds!! It really changed my way of thinking about things...
and death of a loved one really changes you forever... I'm NOT the same person I once was before my mom got sick with cancer...
I think you are totally right-- it's how we handle our situations... and deal with what we get...
I can't say that my life has been unfair.. but one day, I might... I really might.. but I have also lived in the fear for over 9 years that I will get breast cancer... or some other cancer or disease... b/c eventually... we all do or we die from something else.. Our time here is limited .. Some are here longer than others and others are barely here...

I have NEVER been able to rationalize the horrible things that happen to good people... and I sometimes think... If I were God.. I would never let that happen... esp. if I knew about it in advance..
Then, the experts would perhaps remind of of Adam and Eve... that because of THEM (Eve mostly) we are doomed as mankind... because we lost what God once blessed us with... eternal life...
Then we come to Jesus--- who gives us the choice for Eternal Life.. through salvation... etc...
Then comes Mohammed... then whoever ... Okay..
I don't want to get to long and drawn out here...
But, I don't see the point in suffering, sickness, sadness... JUST as I don't see the point that people still behave like wild animals and kill each other/themselves and others all in the name of God/Allah/Yahweh... It just doesn't make any sense..
Sorry if this is off topic a little..
But, I believe that while we ARE here... while we have the strength, power, energy, motivation, love...etc.. to do kind things for others... to make them smile... to give ourselves to something we believe it in order to make this people a nicer place to be in...
Whether that means... giving money to the crooked foot beggar in Budapest (not).. buying an ice cream cone for the local beggar gypsy in Antony (I did that last summer), smiling more... picking up after your dog when he craps on the sidewalk (people you KNOW who I mean), NOT spitting all over the sidewalk, not tagging and dirtying up a lovely place.. respecting others and saying HELLO... or bonjour... to someone you don't know...
Those are things we can do to create a positive environment around us....

Jennie said...

It is bullshit and I completely agree with you. People like to think that things like destiny and fate exist because it makes life seems less miserable and pointless. But for me, there is no meaning or reason to life. It simply exists because of a long chain of events that took billions of years. It wasn't destiny, it was science.

I'm a staunch atheist though and I only believe in science and facts and things that can be proved with my beloved science. So of course I'm a little biased against religions and gods and all that. People put too much faith into things that aren't real because it makes them feel better about life. Who wants to live with the knowledge that life has no point? That it doesn't matter what we do because we're all going to die anyway, like every other living creature on the planet? Honestly, I'm comforted by the fact that when we die, we just die. There is no heaven or hell and we certainly don't have souls. Humans just like to feel superior to other animals but the truth is, we are no different.

I suppose my faith in science is the same as others' faiths in religion. In the end, it's just something to get you through the day when you're surrounded by tragedy and sadness. Personally I don't care what you believe in if it helps you survive, as long as it doesn't deny science and hurt other people.

Perhaps I love science so much because I believe that it explains everything, or that it will in the future. I have faith that science holds all the answers, whether we realize it or not. And I don't need a religion to create stories to explain the things that we don't understand. I am perfectly fine not understanding.

There was a quote from Bones this season that I really liked:

"Two plus two equals four. I put sugar in my coffee and it tastes sweet. The sun comes up because the world turns. These things are beautiful to me. There are mysteries I will never understand, but everywhere I look I see proof that for every effect there is a corresponding cause. Even if I can't see it. I find that reassuring."

The effect has meaning because of the cause, but we still don't know why the cause happens in the first place. We don't know the reason or perhaps there isn't one. It simply is what it is. And in this overly complicated world, what we need is a little more simplicity.

Zhu said...

Well, as an atheist, I can't disagree with that. I don't really believe in destiny, although I do believe that sometimes life send you little gifts (and also sometimes a whole load of shit too).

My philosophy get closer to House M.D everyday.

I kind of believe in luck but I'm not ready to sit down and wait for things to happen, so I think the decisions you make in life make up for 99% of the good you get.

However, I do believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. There is always something to learn, even in the shittiest situation. If I may extrapolate... for instance, you got really sick twice. It sucks and it's not fair. But, a few years from now, you may look back and realize that it taught you something, or it gave you the will to do something special. What, I don't know, you will find out! Patience, for sure...

But that has nothing to do with God. You fought, you learned and you will decide when the time comes to do something with that.

And it will be great. I know it.

No need for a god... we are in charge of our destiny, for better or for worse!

Animesh said...

How about

1. There is no God. Seriously. There is nothing 'out there' who is all powerful, merciful, benevolent, yada yada.

2. Your 'destiny' is shaped by your actions from past lives. And that is why you cannot explain people's suffering simply by looking at their current actions.

The latter is what I was raised with. The former is what I believe now. Either can explain away this apparent contradiction. Your call :).

But in any case, I like your current attitude - and the idea of turning grief into action. Keep it up!

L said...

If you haven't read it yet, I think you'd really enjoy Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. He was a psychiatrist who survived the Holacaust and tried to make sense of it all. A lot of the things you said he wrote about, that there are random occurrences and man assigns it his own meaning because he has to. Don't worry if it's the psychology textbook section; it's short and really easy to read (a lot of it is more story).
You'd probably also like the books by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. She's a motivational/self-help writer and even though her pen name seems really out-there, she's really grounded. Like you, she writes about how good people get sick and die and how she can't accept the philosophy that it's all for a reason. Instead she just tries to understand how she can live a better life in the face of such tragedy. On one occasion someone asked her to council their daughter who'd become paralyzed in an accident and she decided she couldn't because the young woman really believed that the accident had happened for a reason and Oriah couldn't tell her she was right. She'll write about how she meditates and tries to be centered, and then something her teenage sons do just sends her over the edge, so it's a nice balance of inspiration and reality. It's best to read Oriah's books in the order she published them because she incorporates a lot of her personal life into them. And yes, her name is weird, but the books are worth it (in my opinion).

getyourselfconnected said...

stumbled upon your blog through the ever tangled web of the blogosphere. This is the first post of yours I have read and I think I will be reading back on previous posts for a while.

As a scientist I usually will go with the most fact based "reason" for why things happen. That said, it does seem wildly strange to me that terrible things seem to happen to great people at a higher rate than to bad people. This would sit outside the random distribution one sees in normal systems. Who can say?

Your post was thought provoking and I need to think on it. Good luck with everything and I do wish you my best.

au soleil levant said...

Leesa - it's a really troubling issue, and one that everyone has grappled with. Why do bad things happen in general, and why to they happen to good people? I definitely agree with you that we should try to be kinder to our fellow human beings and make the world a better place while we are here. There are very few things we can control in life but we can always control our own actions - being kind to others, helping those in need, taking care of the earth, etc.

Jennie - I'm also a big fan of science. I think evolution is such an amazing, beautiful thing. But I think there is a point to life, or at least that we can make there be a point to life, and that point should be trying to make the world a little better through our actions. For example, since we both love science, all the researchers, doctors and nurses who work every day to improve treatment and bring comfort to sick patients. They are amazing.

Zhu - Isn't luck just another kind of randomness though? If you win the lottery, you were just lucky enough to pick the same random numbers as the machine. You're right, you can take something positive out of a terrible situation, but of course that is something that comes totally from you, not from whatever other power there might be. I think the difference between me (since you use me as the example) and a person who never has to deal with something really life-changing-ly awful is that I know very intimately how precious life is and that every second counts and that you have to use the time you have very well because it is limited. Many people will never learn that lesson and never be driven to pursue their dreams or make a difference.

Animesh - I think there are many more possibilities than just those two :P Glad you approve of my philosophy.

L - thanks, those are great suggestions, they both sound really interesting. I'll look into them.

Getyourselfconnected - thanks for stopping by! I'm not sure that bad things happen to good people at a greater rate than they do to bad people. I would like to think that it's because are many more good people than bad people in the world, so there are just more good people for bad things to happen to, or because no one cares when bad things happen to bad people so we just don't hear about it. Then there are all the good people who never have anything bad happen to them. We do seem to be particularly affected when we hear stories about terrible things happening to good people, so it may also just be that those stories stick with us. Thanks for the good wishes.

I really hope I haven't just opened the door to being obliged to write a post about God now!

Andromeda said...

I like the analogy of the spaceships dodging comets, rather than two crashing into each other. I feel like I'm dodging all the time! I think you have a very active appraoch on your life, and you aren't passively waiting around for someone/something to save you, which I've always prefered. Why would anyone want to give up control of their life to someone else? Or why give credit for good things to someone else?You make the choices, so you should get credit for the sucess and you'll be the one to deal with the consquences. I don't see this attitude as much here, but not going to get into that, lol. Hurray for control and hurray for helping others!

getyourselfconnected said...

Good points re my comment. Have a great weekend.

au soleil levant said...

getyourselfconnected - thanks.

Andromeda - By "here" do you mean France? I'm sure we've all heard the theory of Catholic fatalism vs. the Protestant work ethic. It's true, you can't sit around waiting for things to happen to you, you have to go out and make them happen. Sitting around waiting never helped anyone accomplish anything!

Animesh said...

Even the religious types agree that "God helps those who help themselves".

/that is why I always go to buffets, to stay in God's good books ;)