Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I've Got a Bone to Pick...

There are a few phrases that cause me to go into an apocalyptic fit and the phrase "everything happens for a reason" is one that irks me to no end. The entire phrase is a panacea for those who have a difficult time, or an impossible time, understanding why things happen in history, particularly in their own personal lives. The greatest problem I have with the phrase stems from the view of history it imposes, one that would have you believe there is a certain course to history. It's the first step towards a teleological view of history, that history is a series of endless progression toward some unknown utopian future. I don't buy it obviously. It's that utopian type of thinking that has led to the most destructive ideologies of the last two centuries. From Marxism to Fascism to religious endtimes thinking there runs a common thread in the belief that some sort of perfect future awaits humanity. For some, they believe it is their duty to hasten or even bring about the events that would lead to said utopia. Such a view of history does not have to remain at the macro level however. It can run even in the small scale, say in a belief of the domino theory of foreign policy thinking during the Cold War or, for a more modern reference, the belief that a democratized Iraq would topple other local regimes through example leading to an ideal, pro-Western Middle East. While utopian thinking does provide a sense of purpose to ones actions, that purpose general does not lead to a healthy or morally good outcome. For the serious believers, any action, no matter how grotesque, immoral or ugly, is justified if that action brings the utopian society one step closer to reality. Hence the phrase, "everything happens for a reason," with its tinges of teleological and utopian thinking, makes me want to throttle the speaker.
Another part of the phrase that bothers me, one tangentially related to my first point, is the implicit idea that all events hold some sort of meaning. History itself has no meaning and its events, while certainly having causes, lack meaning as well. This applies to the future as well, a future that necessarily will one day become the past. Things happen and that's all you can say about the facts of history. Anything more become interpretation of meaning, but that meaning isn't attached by history itself, but by human minds attempting to understand the whys of history. Often you see a lot of 'what-if' questions in history and historians playing devil's advocate. This is because historians are constantly asking the question of why this event occurred and not some other event. This is due to history lacking any sort of grand system or cosmic plan. History moves of its own accord, tied to human actions but no director of those actions. So to say that everything happens for a reason is to say that each human action has a reason, despite the obvious daily evidence that this is patently untrue. Each event can contain meaning, but that meaning changes from person to person, and most importantly, how that person is looking at the historical fact.
All of this is to say instead of using thinking and phrases like "everything happens for a reason" it would do you well to follow the idea that whatever happens happens. You can say something like "the Berlin Wall will not fall in our lifetimes" and then go back and figure out where and how you were wrong. But to imply that there's some underlying meaning to that action is to read too much into the event. Look for causes, but don't look for meaning within historical facts themselves.