Everything happens for a reason (*see terms and conditions): Part 1

Jump to Part 2

About a decade ago, I listened to women tell me about sexual violence they survived for hundreds of hours. It was my internship, the completion of my master’s degree program in counseling, and I served as a volunteer at a free counseling center for people dealing with the aftermath of rape. For some, the violence had happened just hours before. For others, it had been decades. It didn’t matter; any trauma undealt with was still new, and I was there for it.

In preparation for the work, I was coached in certain things to do or not do, things to say and not say. Some of this is obvious: don’t judge; don’t cast doubt; don’t encourage self-blame. Other parts weren’t so intuitive. For instance, a lot of things people grasp at when they try to offer comfort to others fails to come across well. Phrases like “let go and move on,” or “all men are terrible” minimize the trauma and excuse the rapist, respectively.

Bernardo Strozzi, The Three Fates

But among the very worst things you could possibly say to someone after hey wee raped is this: “Everything happens for a reason.” I won’t argue that some people take comfort in the idea that everything unfolds according to G-d’s plan. If it does for you, you’re lucky — many people struggle for years to come to terms with trauma. But for so many others, those same words ring with judgment. “Everything happens for a reason — and that reason must be that I deserved it.”

I bring all this up because it’s exceedingly difficult to reconcile this truth with a central tenet of Spinoza’s philosophy. Namely, this: that Spinoza holds everything unfolds necessarily as it must, because the universe operates in an ordered determinism. It’s difficult to reconcile the two, but not impossible.

In this series of posts, I’m going to take a look at this challenging topic and attempt to explain how it’s possible to balance Spinoza’s determinism against an innate sense of self insisting we have free will.

But first …

Before the fun gets going, here’s a warning and an invitation.

First, I really mean what I said above. Never, under any circumstance, tell someone who’s been through a traumatic experience that “everything happens for a reason,” even if you believe it in your to be true. Even if you believe it intellectually in the way Spinoza did, just don’t. Those words will very likely be heard as “you did something to deserve what was done to you” and it will compound the tragedy. Those words have the power to set back trauma recovery by years — no exaggeration. If you would like to know some helpful things you can do or say, this page has some good suggestions.

Second, to reiterate something I always say on my philosophy posts, I am no subject matter expert here. My undergrad degree was journalism and my grad degree was counseling. I managed my way through one whole philosophy class and dropped out of another because I found logic too boring. (In my defense, I was 18; it wasn’t a very logical time in my life). So all that said, I welcome correction, criticism (preferably constructive) and education. If I’m wrong, do me a solid and let me know!

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