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When bad things 'have' to happen: the final answer is ...

Have you ever tried to comfort an inconsolable friend who's been subjected to a soul-crushing experience like getting fired or dumped by a lover?

Searching for a means to inflate flattened spirits, we find ourselves uttering something like, "There, there, now, everything happens for a reason."

Frequently enough, the utterance is met with a quizzical stare. The recipient is either totally baffled about any possible reason for the hammer of fate or suspects the speaker has lost all touch with reality. If you'll just buy into it, we tell ourselves, you might catch a beam of hope. In the hope of finding solace, humankind almost unanimously cozies up to the conviction that everything happens for a good reason.

Most people would like to think so.

The concept of benign providence enjoys pivotal status as a working belief for people of various religious persuasions. In time of need, even committed unbelievers trot out a "wisdom of the universe" rationale, when things that make no sense are happening willy nilly. Sooner or later, we may all have recourse to the mysterious "good reason" justification.

Well, does everything happen for a reason? Probably not--at least not at the conventional, kindergarten level of dishing up emotionally gooey pablum as a substitute lot the kind of genuine spiritual nutrition needed in times of crisis. The providential "good reason" hypothesis smacks of both lousy theology and bad science.

Lousy Theology

"No atheist in a fox hole," goes the saying.

In the same way, when we are brought to our knees by tragic circumstance, we seem to be in the right position for heartfelt prayer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the eminent Protestant theologian, referred to this religions inclination as "the gap-filler God" dynamic. When all else fails to remedy the course of suffering, we bring in God as the explanation, and prayer as the solution. God becomes the mysterious marionette allowing bad things to happen to good people to teach an obscure lesson that otherwise fails to penetrate blockheads. What a weird god that one is. Of course, as they say, God writes straight with crooked lines. Aha? Feeling better?

The real conundrum involves the dilemma of why bad things happen to good people (and why good things happen to bad people).

Theologians do handstands with the good-and-evil dilemma, but we're still waiting for the somersault that scores a perfect 10.

The Book of Job notwithstanding, it seems unlikely to all but the most fervent souls that God relishes religious trickery and does it in Morse code. But, we do relish comfort concepts.

Bad Science

Nietzsche noted that out of chaos comes order. Since Nietzsche was not a particularly comforting fellow, he also noted that from order comes chaos. Contemporary scientists do recognize a mess of chaos in the laws of nature, and the less scientifically trained can find the lessons of gruesome fate on the Discovery channel. True, the antelope freely roam; unfortunately, many are eaten by lions. The "everything happens for a reason" explanation is very good for the lion but not so good for the antelope.

Much of what science has to offer on the "good reason" hypothesis can be summed up in the observation that big fish eat little fish.

From great white sharks to black holes, science reveals an inexorably merciless quality to the laws of nature. Of course, we don't pay much attention to it unless we happen to be getting sucked into the vortex. From a scientific standpoint, what works so beautifully in the grand plan can be downright revolting if we happen to be doing an imitation of fish bait. Where's the personal "good reason" pay off in getting eaten?

Good Psychology

And yet, research demonstrates that religous beliefs help most people some of the time and some people most of the time--thus, no harm in believing that a benign presence in the universe looks both over us and out for US.

Likewise, no harm in hoping that the progress of science may one day organize the laws of nature as a comprehensible whole so that every connection between every event can be microscoped and made ultimately intelligible: the order of chaos.

When adverse events shatter our sense of personal control, however, we become dependent and search for a benign locus of control outside ourselves--the "brought to one's knees" phenomenon may not be such bad news for either the blockhead or the cocksure.

But, if things happen to us happen for a reason, good psychology requires us to search the soul. The reasons are best found within ourselves, if nut as accountability, at least as challenge.

If our actions are the cause of unfortunate events, we should find ourselves properly accountable and make whatever corrections are required to produce more favorable outcomes in the future.

If we are purely victims of unkind late, the reasons are best found not so much in the "how come" but in the "how to." As they say, the good Lord helps those who help themselves. The best response to adversity is resiliency. When we dig in and rebound from a bad experience, we usually discover the "how come" while executing the "how to."

At times, mired in personal myopia, we lose touch with the deeper meanings of life; and bad news brings up to our senses. It's not a bowl of cherries. Humbling experiences have traditionally proven to be excellent exercises for the adjustment of hat size, the anchoring of wayward ego, and the broadening of horizons. Sometimes, we simply need to find a more reasonable method of accounting for what matters and what doesn't.

Maybe we just need to laugh at ourselves. As Kingsley Amis said, "The rewards of being sane are not many, but knowing what's funny is one of them." The difference between tragedy and comedy is often a slight shift of locus in the eye of the beholder. Or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, out of tragedy comes comedy. Most of our best stories derive from a visit to the pits.

Dr. Bernard G. Suran. Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and diplomat and fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and the American Board of Professional Psychology. This column is published under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life and Career Committee. The committee's website is at The Quality of Life and Career Committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive listserv titled "The Healthy Lawyer." Details and subscription information regarding the listserv can be accessed through the committee's Web site or by going directly to
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Title Annotation:Stresslines
Author:Suran, Bernard G.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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