People say it all the time. Everything happens for a reason.
It’s supposed to be comforting and deep. It implies there is some sort of grand scheme – a kind of cosmic chessboard where all the moves, winners and losers have been predetermined in some grand design. We just don’t understand or see the big picture. Whether you believe in God, Source, or a big, black hole of nothingness, this concept is difficult to digest.
And, these days, I have little patience for vague platitudes.
A year and a half ago, my precious first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, died in a tragic, single-vehicle motorcycle accident. He was ejected off his shiny new Honda bike over the side of an elevated highway ramp, soaring 40 feet into the azure Texas sky. Elliot died on the operating table at the same Dallas hospital where he took his first breath at 5:17 p.m. on May 17, 1992. He told me he took every precaution – the fanciest Japanese helmet, safety-paneled jacket and thick, heavy boots. Except, there was always that inherent risk of riding the damn bike – a paradox that’s so difficult to rationalize.
My anguish deepens with each passing day.
What complicates my journey is the weight of accumulated losses and traumas over the past few years – my father’s death in 2014, after years of a rare form of epilepsy he kept secret, dissension regarding his care and eventual dementia; the death of my mother in 2012, after a debilitating two-year post-stroke struggle; the death of my cherished mentor and friend of 30 years last year; the intentional absence of my sister and only sibling after Elliot’s death, and the pain of a prolonged toxic relationship that I finally ended. I am a divorced mother of two brilliantly complicated boys, Elliot and Ian, and this worst-of-all-losses has throttled me.
So, when I recently saw Bill Maher opining about the cloying cliche – “everything happens for a reason” on his often-irreverent HBO show, something clicked. Granted, Bill Maher and a spiritual a-ha hardly seem compatible, but that’s why it caught my attention. He was interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, a crisp, witty scientific raconteur and author I enjoy watching ponder the mysteries of the universe.
Fresh from an uncharacteristic social media firestorm, he acknowledged contritely that he commented impulsively in response to one of our latest horrifying mass shooting incidents. He tweeted something glib about people dying in other ways every day. Perhaps, that faux pas did happen for a reason – to wake us up from our desensitized trance and complacent stupor around the senseless loss of human life in the name of gun ownership.
As they chatted about politics, truth and the universe, Bill declared, “One thing I hear all the time is that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Now, that’s an absurd statement.” He went on to say it’s perpetuated by the entitled elite who revel in giving supernatural meaning to the happy accidents in their privileged lives. He observed that for those who struggle in abject poverty and pain, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen, and they are mostly about struggle. It’s easier to recognize mystical signs of abundance when you have already reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Neil echoed his chagrin adding, “’Everything happens for a reason’ – is so not true. Everything is random in the universe. We create the reasons.”
Yes, I found this refreshing. A cosmic scientist was confirming what I now know down to the marrow. Horrible, unfathomable, devastating things happen. They just do. The unthinkable can occur, and it does – with swashbuckling arrogance. It’s a grim, raw reality that has drastically changed the way I view the world, life – and death. Jaded, maybe, but real.
Mindfulness practice teaches us that healing starts with the radical acceptance of what is. Thus, accepting randomness is part of that, right? And, it offers me a whisper of peace. Nothing makes sense, really. We all mourn losses, including the raging wildfires in Australia, an airplane shot down by Iran, and the random destruction wrought by ten violent tornadoes just blocks from my home in Dallas.
There is no reason.
That might be the most spiritual notion of all. These things simply are. They are part of being human. Yet, something about the death of a truly remarkable child and all his promise seismically shifts your psychic interface with life itself. When I hear “everything happens for a reason” now, it’s excruciating and hurts with the intensity of a frigid, subzero slap in the face. In fact, I feel like an alien in my own life when I encounter a well-meaning co-worker or neighbor reprise this “for-a-reason” banality or the ever-popular, “Heaven got another angel.” That does not help.
Though we strive to accept the tragedy and randomness of things, it’s still painful. There is no instant emotional anesthetic in the accepting. I guess that’s what Neil recognized on some level when he openly acknowledged that his insensitive comment made a negative emotional impact. He said:
Yes, it was true, but emotions do matter . . . People are bereaved. Facts are facts, but emotions are real, too. I should have taken some time before I typed that tweet. I should have taken a breath . . .
And, there it is – a perfect example of retrospective mindfulness. Self-aware and empathetic reflection. Here’s the lesson – let’s be more present with each other, more intentionally compassionate. And, more present in our grief. Yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s where the treasure is. In the end, that might be the only possible reason – for anything. The grace of vulnerability.
Maybe, things don’t happen for a reason, but, maybe, grace does.
Amid grief’s messy miasma, those tiny fragments of presence are what save us. Grace is in them – in the startling moment of compassion or the gentle word from another broken heart who carries the weight of a similar loss. Grace is in the unexpected care package that arrives from a sorority sister I have not seen in 30 years. It’s in the chance introduction to an angel boss whose compassion and wisdom make it possible for me to function at all. And, grace is in the generous soul of a dear friend I have known since first grade who makes a special trip across the country to sit with me on the first anniversary of Elliot’s death.
Grace. It’s those poignant, profound gestures and occasional synchronicities – often obscured by the heavy darkness that’s my new normal. I think this is all that matters in the end. I have to believe in the benevolence of universe – and God at work somehow. That’s the only way I can put one foot in from of the other . . . one day, one moment at a time – perchance to experience that next fleeting glimpse of grace.
Until tomorrow – and then, again.