Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
8 September, 2023
A careful look at the meaning of the popular phrase.
Author: Bernard Beitman, MD, Psychiatrist, Author, President of the Board, The Coincidence Project
- What does the statement “Everything happens for a reason” actually mean?
- ‘Reason’ can mean both explanation and purpose or meaning.
- Much of the value of a meaningful coincidence depends on the judgment of the person experiencing it and what they decide to do with it.
Among the standard replies to remarkable synchronicities is the statement, “Everything happens for a reason.”
In its common usage, it appears to be almost equivalent to “it’s all good.” The “reason” statement is more ambiguous but seems to imply that everything happens to create something good for the person.
Sometimes, the “reason” statement is made because something bad happened, and saying it is intended to be comforting. Sometimes, it’s said because something good happened; saying this then becomes a way to affirm that more than blind luck is at work. But what does the phrase really mean?
A closer look suggests that the word “reason” has at least two primary meanings: explanation and purpose. One way of interpreting the statement is that every effect has a cause — that the cause is the reason. People tend to believe that there has to be a cause of any event. Or does there have to be? The cause may not be findable by human beings. If the cause may be knowable to us, we guess there is a cause that we can’t yet know. However, in quantum physics, we don’t know the reason two entangled particles at a great distance from each other move together, equally and oppositely. There are many theories but no reliable explanation. Jung strongly emphasized that meaningful coincidences demonstrate the limits of conventional causal thinking. (Jung, 1973)
Purpose, not explanation
“Everything happens for a reason” is primarily intended to imply a future-oriented reason—namely purpose or meaning. With its implied certainty, the statement insists that the coincider (the person experiencing the coincidence) should realize that a benevolent, superior intelligence has made this event happen for their benefit.
According to some Christian thought, the source of this faith in the superior intelligence is the Bible: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) This verse declares that God causes all things to work together but with an important caveat: If the coincider loves Jesus then good things will happen through the coincidence. However, this additional meaning is not evident in the statement itself.
The spectrum of interpretations
Coincidences happen. What makes one coincidence “good” and another one “bad”? For example, a person meets that special someone through amazing synchronicity, and the relationship begins to flourish. Then it ends. Was the synchronicity good or bad?
This question can only be answered by the person because the person puts the values on the outcome. What does the person choose: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never having love at all” or “the break-up smashed the beautiful future I saw for us”?
Time also plays a role. Perhaps a woman is deciding whether or not to accept the marriage proposal of the person she loves. Her parents are advising against it. As she sits in the car with her possible fiancé, the song that both she and her deceased grandmother loved comes on the radio. The synchronicity encourages her to believe that her grandmother approves of the relationship. They get married. Joy! They have children! Joy! Then she discovers that her partner is having affairs. Despair.
When does she decide the outcome of the synchronicity is good or bad? When she gets married? When they have children? Or when she finds out about the affairs? Where on the timeline she decides to make a judgment, influences how she evaluates the outcome.
The importance of agency
Believing that the hidden purpose of a coincidence is an all-good future, encourages hope but perhaps also excessive positivity.
By recognizing our own agency in interpreting coincidences, we can use “everything happens for a reason” to turn an ambiguous result into a potentially positive one through our own actions. We can use our limited range of free will to create, with or without a Higher Intelligence, a positive outcome from a questionable result. Perhaps the partner’s having affairs could become a clue to both of them to investigate what needs to change in the marriage. Perhaps the affairs can become the lever to vault each of them out of a deteriorating trap. After the initial turbulence, the transition may turn out to be good for one and not so for the other. Only they can judge.
The inherent ambiguity in the meaning of “reason” leads to questioning whether the statement is about cause or purpose. Its interpersonal use emphasizes purpose. The implication of a superior intelligence may intuitively trouble those who do not believe in fate or God or the Universe. For those who do believe in a higher intelligence, the statement can be comforting and reassuring that everything will turn out well. For those who wish to exercise their own resilience through personal agency, the statement encourages them to believe in their own ability to create a beneficial future.
Jung, C. J. (1973) Synchronicity. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press