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  • Writer's pictureAzrael Encarnacion


Is There a Predetermined Reason for Why Everything Happens?

When I was younger I hated hearing the phrase, “it is what it is.” Nothing felt more unnecessary to say because of course, it is what it is...What else could “it” possibly be, other than exactly what “it” is?! The words almost lacked meaning because they felt useless to say. Adding nothing as a response (as it was usually used). Providing no comfort, insight, or consolation. “It is what it is” in my opinion, left you right back where you started and expressed the futility of going any further. I hated this.

But as I got older the phrase went from being borderline meaningless to becoming, for me, one of the truest statements anyone could ever make. Treading the wise line between both the most obvious and most elusive. And I could be wrong about this, but I think my positive reception of the statement was strengthened by the gradual distance between myself and another common phrase I've heard throughout my life: “everything happens for a reason.”

I don’t quite believe that things happen for a reason. That events in the future are set and we’re just falling to them as if pulled down by a sequential gravity. This reverses cause and effect, making the latter responsible for the former. Under this logic: Eating lunch is why I was hungry. Tripping is why I failed to notice the steps were wet. Making a bad first impression during my dream job interview is why I ran late. It's all backwards.

To be fair, people don’t use “everything happens for a reason” so loosely. In fact, it’s usually reserved to either manage disappointment or for events of good fortune, or the prospect of good fortune in the future. In the aforementioned example of the lost job opportunity, it would more or less be framed as something better awaits this person in the future and that’s the reason the opportunity didn’t quite gel today.

So if indeed, the initial rejection causes them to settle for a part-time job--One they aren’t too crazy about but allows them more free time to network, and eventually find mentorship and valuable resources/experiences that bolster their C.V. and familiarity within a specific market, community, etc. Leading to an even more ideal opportunity, as their talent is now sought out competitively by various employers--Then they may come to see that prosperous present circumstance as the reason why they were initially rejected. Effect to cause. Which makes as much sense to me, as catching a glass of water that was falling and claiming that as the reason it was accidentally dropped.

I can’t help but see this only in the opposite direction. From cause to effect: the glass fell, that’s why it was caught. In the case of the job opportunity: the free-time, the networking, the mentorship, gaining of experience, community, and recognition all are instrumental causes toward the effect of landing that later ideal opportunity. So I don’t believe things happen for a reason, which is to say things happen to accommodate a set future. I believe things happen out of reasons, causes that lead to a future that is only set when we finally get there--And even then, only set for an instance.

I get why someone would say everything happens for a reason. Especially when events seem to favorably fall into place. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get excited at the way the present sometimes unravels, as if creatively choreographed with recurring themes and poetic synchronicities. Random pieces that come together like a jigsaw puzzle to form a cohesive tapestry. Living art. Playing into the ongoing story we have of ourselves within our heads.

Narratives are generally how we make sense of the world; our past events and how we project ourselves into the future. History is a collective story. Memory and identity are personal stories, and we’re almost always starring as the hero. When we catch up with friends, we exchange stories from the interim journey; we share what happened on the commute to work or on a recent date. We’re all storytellers. Even the nature of problem solving, for which our brains are hardwired, requires stories to help us conceptualize what's happening now, what happened before, and depending what we do now, what will happen later? Internally, we also collect and recollect stories based on our experiences. We use these private narratives to explain our self to our self--Mapping paths that marked the trail to our current identity. Providing for our self-understanding, a formula that states because of X, Y, and Z, I am A, B, and C.

Past victories are retold as trophies. Our defeats, pitfalls that provide the underdog's heroic climb back up. Giving us a causal narrative that allows us to see linear and cohesive connections between past and present. We learn lessons from our stories. The practice helps us exercise our imagination, to conjure new ideas and theories, to invent and reinvent ourselves.

Ironically, we tend to use ‘everything happens for a reason’ as the cause of the effect; the plot for the conclusion. Like a metaphysical battery for the machinery that shapes our fortunate outcomes. In this way, it too says everything happens out of reasons but then insists that the reasons themselves are that everything happens for a reason. So if missing your train resulted in you running into an old friend, who invites you to a party where you meet your future partner--You meet this future partner out of the reasons in the past (late train, old friend) but those reasons happen for a specific future to manifest.

So everything happens for a reason therefore I missed my train. Everything happens for a reason therefore I bumped into an old friend. Everything happens for a reason therefore I met my partner at a party. And even if the relationship comes to an end because I was emotionally unavailable and disrespectful of boundaries--Only learning these valuable lessons after the break up--Everything happens for a reason therefore I learned to become emotionally available and respectful of boundaries for my next relationship.

To be clear, I’m not saying these lessons aren’t significant or that they would be directly possible without the previous experience that produced them. I’m only questioning the necessity, the idea that any of it needed to happen. That if the event didn’t occur something would be fundamentally wrong. Everything happening for a reason implies a design and designation. Things are reserved to happen in a specific and invariable way.

The idea of determinism, which more or less says everything happening right now is a product of everything that came before, is built on cause and effect. What you will do tomorrow and how you will interpret that experience is based on the life you’ve lived thus far, the language you speak, who you know, your hobbies, career, responsibilities, capabilities, current interests, biases, location, weather and many other factors that will determine the kind of day you will have. All of us are at any given moment, the tip of an iceberg, with our individual histories bulking underneath the water. Experience is itself like a wide funnel, tapering down conditions and interconnections into the present event, one instance at a time. Not because one line of instances is more correct than another but rather because only one line of instances can happen at a time as experienced by us. I can't call out of work to stay home and go to work for a full day at the worksite, at the same time. However, I can call out today and work a full day tomorrow, living out both experiences as a sequence, but not a simultaneous line of instances.

Some philosophers speak about determinism and predeterminism as if the two were the same thing. The fatalist quality of experience, seeming locked into only one possibility without choice, encourages this interchangeability between destination and predestination--Fueled by the idea that what happens is always the only way it can happen--The future then, when it finally arrives, can only happen one way and therefore it too, is set.

By this view, the future isn’t open to be written by our choices, instead the future is our fate--And our actions now, are authored to ensure we get there exactly as planned. This would also support that everything happens for a reason.

The first problem I have with this, is that there is no way to prove that things can only happen one way. We do not have the opportunity to go back in time and relive them a second, third, fourth, or indefinite amount of time. We’re just assuming this position due to how we currently experience the world the first and perhaps only time around. We have some idea as to why we choose certain actions but others seem very random and can occur to us entirely based on unconscious influences. The origins of these influences are mysteries at best, and to think we can predict them is highly suspect to me. Depending how stable the physical world really is, perhaps it’s true everything will happen exactly the same way every time--But what if it’s not? At the very least, if the world becomes unstable once you repeat events, if the quantum reality is not so gracious at reiteration, then all bets are off.

There's a difference between rewinding the clock like a cassette tape--That will surely play the same recording again--And time-jumping back; dropping right into the session and re-recording the music. It might seem stubborn of me, but until someone proves me otherwise (by time-traveling), I don't take it as a given that the same invariable song will be produced in the second case.

The second issue for me is the assumption that what we say about the present also applies to the future. That if the present can only happen one way then the same is then true about the future. I understand the logic because the future will become the present and vice versa but there’s a generosity I feel, that’s being misinterpreted there. Because experientially only the present can be the present. We can get poetic and say we’re living in the future’s past or the past’s future but the present is the precise idea that expresses experiencing The Now; not The Later or The Before.

After all, we can call ice: ‘water that was previously unfrozen’ but we can’t treat cold water as if it’s ice just because it will surely become ice an hour from now. Pouring cold water in your whiskey is not the same as adding two cubes of ice. Ice is ice only when it becomes ice. The future, likewise, is no more set than a dinner table that will be set but isn’t yet at this present moment--It might seem like some word-game I’m insisting on but I think it matters. What I’m essentially saying is that determinism only applies to the present. That the future can only join the determined conversation once it gets here and no sooner.

I do find wisdom in the idiom found in many a sci-fi, time traveler story, ‘the future is what you make it.’ Assembly is required and like the retelling of some humorous experiences, you have to be there in order to get it. The past determines the present but it’s only in the present that we see the active ingredients (though some remain elusive) and how they all connected like notes in a symphony to produce this moment. It makes sense to us from this present vantage point, and from here, those who wish to say everything happens for a reason, will do so. Because the moment feels so orchestrated, written, and conducted. For me, it’s just testament to how good we are at seeing patterns and creating narratives. Make no mistake I do it too, it’s fun and makes life more like a living poem. Yet, the future remains for me, unknown and unready. Having no plan for us until we get there. However once it becomes the present, the future, from what I interpret as a deterministic perspective, is like an annoying magician or psychic, who claims they knew you were going to say what you just said, but they only ever say this after you said what you said.

Our determination, that is, the effort we put into an intended outcome is not a product of predeterminism. Though it may be very inspirational to hold the kind of conviction that frames the future you see for yourself as your fate, so long as you recognize that this vision also requires your present participation. Actions you take now will determine where you will be in the future. Events, both obvious and practically invisible, will prompt you this way and that, likewise contributing to where you’ll find yourself tomorrow.

Determination as supplied by you, understands stuff’s gotta happen now, in order for related stuff to happen later. It invites us to get creative and imaginative in regards to assisting that process. The story that something is meant to be, if it helps you show up in the present and put in the necessary work to materialize the ‘prophecy,’ is as good as any other creative fuel or discipline. Less effective perhaps, is believing something is meant to be and doing absolutely nothing to assist it but await for your birthright, as it were, to manifest.

Granted, this might pan out sometimes but the more you care about an intended outcome the more it might benefit you to get a bit more involved.

People who practice determination, whether they express it as such, likewise know everything does not happen for a reason--It’s just as true for them that everything that happens can be made into a reason that helps determine an intended outcome in the future. It isn’t fate, it’s a never ending spill of events and if you want to be more to the left within the spill, you need to move accordingly, beginning now.

The spill, itself, is what it is. Meaning, its meaning is inclusive to itself and perhaps other things too but it definitely leaves you at the gate of that definition. Which is why the statement was so frustrating for me in the past. While there is still a resignation to it is what it is that I continually protest to; a part that feels like nothing is worth doing or changing--Championing a heavy materialism that insists what you see is what you get, so don’t bother lifting. All this still annoys me about the phrase and that specific intention of its use. But simultaneously, what I’ve learned from it, is that there is a point, spiritually (or consciously) where we need to check ourselves and realize we don’t need to go any further. That everything isn’t for us, or a matter of our conquering, inhabiting or defining. Stopping is not futility, it’s humility--A recognition we’re part of a much bigger, older, incomprehensible story, and we’re not the protagonist, not the hero. We can be looked over, we’re in fact easy to miss.

It is what it is speaks to this disregard, a knowledge that doesn’t answer to you. It’s the tree that may or may not have fallen in the woods because no one was there to witness it. The truth remains in the woods and therefore whispered among the inhabitants there and out of my reach.

To me, this is the state of the world at large outside my mind. Unavailable passed that circular tagline. Admitting it is something, and that that’s all it’s willing to reveal. Making it difficult to accept that everything happens for a reason because the reasons themselves aren’t as significant as I think they are, they just are what they are. Their truth, dancing in the woods where I have no access. And I'm not owed anything, so if I want something I better damn well do something about it.

Of course I supply my own meaning in my choose-my-own-adventure story where I’m the hero. I have a lot of fun doing so and find meaningful fulfillment in the exercise as well but I can’t take myself too serious as a hero who believes this moment now is why I lived everything I did before it…I mean, it’s all good within my mind as a subjective lens that helps me get shit done but to say that it isn’t just a filter and that the world actually wears that hue isn’t something I have access to say. And so, just like a color I’ve never seen before, all I can really know about it before ever witnessing it, is that it is what it is. And in terms of everything happening and why, it’s truer to say everything happens because everything happens.

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