Design by Mellisa Lee. Buy this photo.

“Everything happens for a reason” is never quite as comforting as it is meant to be. Many criticize the phrase because it feels like a slap in the face — it seems to justify, or even support, their suffering. Another oppositional interpretation of the maxim asserts that it undermines free will, retracting our influence over both victory and failure.  There is also a contextual dimension. Using “everything happens for a reason” may be comforting to a friend who scored low on a test, yet insulting and demoralizing to a trauma victim. 

We have all considered these different ways of looking at negative life events, whether it is a flat tire, a fight with a friend or a global pandemic. As human beings, we crave a coherent personal narrative that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. We want to understand why life happens to us the way it does. We all have different hypotheses about this fundamental “why,” whether we believe that life is a force that acts upon us or that we are a force that acts upon life. Pondering the abstract workings of the universe is a uniquely human characteristic that supports the expansion of our individual and collective consciousness. 

However, people assume that, sometimes, we are entitled to a black and white answer to our suffering. We become frustrated when a solid answer is nowhere to be found. Sometimes it is easy to assume that other humans have been endowed with these answers. Some find solace in religion, while others find their purpose through empiricism.  

No single way of understanding fate, destiny or coincidence will ever be universally satisfactory. Life is far too complex. How we perceive the world and how it works directly impacts our emotional world. When we outsource our individual or community narrative to a one-dimensional way of rationalizing the great system of time and place we are a part of, we risk viewing life from a perspective that brings us sadness, anger or anxiety to no end. 

We are beginning to separate the difference between our inherent human equality and actually affirming and protecting that equality within our communities. Also, we possess an unprecedented amount of righteousness as a collective. We feel bad when we can’t fix everything, we feel our neighbors’ suffering is undeserved. That’s a lot of baggage to carry around. Our collective anger and sadness can contribute massive inertia toward revolutionary change, but often we will find the burden of our pain too heavy to lift into progress. 

The events we experience in life do not dictate the way we feel — our reactions to them do. It is our emotional reaction to an event that determines the way it will affect us psychologically and spiritually. In that way, the bad feeling is an entity entirely separate from the thing that happened. Yes, it is a byproduct of the thing that happened, but our conscious perception itself is something that we can actually manipulate and change to better cope with the stress, loss and uncertainty that marks every human life. 

Psychological and spiritual practices teach that observing the events of our lives without judgment is the best way to coexist with negative experiences. When we are able to accept the realities of a negative event in a somewhat neutral way, we can separate our sense of worth and fulfillment from our personal narrative. That way, no matter what happens to us, we do not react in a way that amplifies the negative consequences. 

While negative emotion can be overwhelming, and at times debilitating, ultimately you can still determine how you’d like to move forward. That is all that matters. 

Emotions themselves do not change the world — it is how we use those emotions to motivate ourselves and others to action. Our actions can either be an automatic reaction or an exercise of disciplined free will. The universe cannot guarantee you anything, but you can commit yourself to the freedom of mind no matter your circumstances.

Awareness of our own lives and the world around us comes with the responsibility of emotional and spiritual hygiene. It is not about ignoring tragedy, nor stifling emotion. We are not robots. In fact, we can hardly control our emotions as a species. 

The objective is rather the full expression and re-processing of trauma at the individual and community level in order to usher in mental re-calibration and resilience in the midst of pain, sadness, difficulty and mourning. Change is resilience. 

Cultivating empowerment, opportunity and empathy on our terms is what will ultimately bring us to shore. 

Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at