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‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ for Nonsupernaturalists

Summary:
One of the great boons of religion comes from the good effects of the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.” As usually interpreted, this idea leads believers to look for the silver lining in clouds—the good that can be made out of shocks that seem bad. Fortunately for us nonsupernaturalists, it is not necessary to believe in a benevolent supernatural being or power arranging things in order to search for the silver lining in clouds—and benefit from that search. First, one can approach a tough situation as if there were a benevolent supernatural being or power without actually believing in that power. Metaphors don’t have to be literally

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'Everything Happens for a Reason' for Nonsupernaturalists

One of the great boons of religion comes from the good effects of the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.” As usually interpreted, this idea leads believers to look for the silver lining in clouds—the good that can be made out of shocks that seem bad.

Fortunately for us nonsupernaturalists, it is not necessary to believe in a benevolent supernatural being or power arranging things in order to search for the silver lining in clouds—and benefit from that search. First, one can approach a tough situation as if there were a benevolent supernatural being or power without actually believing in that power. Metaphors don’t have to be literally true to be useful.

Let me give a homely example of what I find to be a useful metaphor that I definitely don’t take as literally true. Inanimate objects sometimes get lost in my house. After a diligent, but still unsuccessful search, there has been selection against easy hiding places that I would have found it in immediately. So at that point, it helps me to ask “If it were trying to hide from me, where would it hide?” I don’t believe for a minute that the inanimate object can intentionally hide; but after the selection against the most originally most likely answers to “Where is it?” thinking as if it were intentionally hiding often yields the right kind of creative thought in order to find it.

A second nonsupernaturalist “translation” of “Everything happens for a reason” is Shirzad Chamine’s translation of it in Positive Intelligence. (See “On Human Potential” and “How Economists Can Enhance Their Scientific Creativity, Engagement and Impact.”) Shirzad defines what he calls the “Sage Perspective” as the idea that everything—including things that seem very bad—can be turned into a gift and opportunity.

In a quotation send to me from Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic, the brilliant writer Jorge Luis Borges says the same idea beautifully:

A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Ryan Holiday then extends this beyond art to life:

To decide to use this as raw material? To learn from it? To transform it? To find an opportunity within it? Yes, that remains in our power. Everything is material. We can use it all.

“Everything happens for a reason” works as well as it does for a good reason. Relative to the ancestral environment within human beings evolved, our current environment is a very nice one. (For improvements in recent history, see “Things are Getting Better: 3 Videos.") Quite literally, our instincts are to expect things to be worse and more difficult than they really are. “Optimism” is not a virtue in all circumstances, but it is a virtue in the current circumstances almost all of you enjoy; any situation better than the environment of evolutionary adaptation requires some counterweight to our inherited pessimism which was so appropriate back then, but is not so appropriate now.

  • Everything happens for a reason.

  • It is as if everything happens for a reason.

  • Everything can be turned into a gift and opportunity.

  • All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art [and life].

Any of these ideas can sprinkle some stardust on your life and help make your life, not only bearable, but joyous.

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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