Thursday, September 11, 2014

Philosophy Via Sitcom: Everything Happens For A Reason

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I cringe when I hear people say that, feeling a little like Sheriff Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show, the way he gently smirked, shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck when Opie or Goober mistook the true message in a teachable moment.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is usually an evasive misreading of what actually happened or worse yet, blatantly false. What’s more, it often feels like loser talk masquerading alternately as religious doctrine, superstition, Buddhism or folk wisdom.

I call it, “loser talk,” because it’s offered with a shrug of the shoulders after things don’t work out as hoped. Nobody ever wins a game, then pumps a fist in the air and shouts, “Oh, hell yeah! Things happen for a reason!”

There’s a classic episode of Andy Griffith when Andy is alerted by the feds that a delivery of gold will pass through Mayberry on the way to Fort Knox. He and Barney must provide security. Andy tells Barney and swears him to secrecy. Through a series of foolish, prideful stumbles, Barney tells person after person until all of Mayberry knows. Barney wants to blame it on town gossip – on the inevitability of the relentless forces of human nature, rather than blame his own actions.

I have experiences not unlike that in my real estate career. Clients will ignore my advice and make repeated decisions based upon false logic and ego, then when the bad thing happens that I warned them about, they very rarely say, “Wow, I blew it.” Instead, they shrug, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Everything happens for a reason.”
If I’m lucky, they stop there. If I’m not lucky, they say, “Guess it just wasn’t in God’s plan.”

That makes me crazy. If there was a modern HBO version of Mayberry, Andy would say, “Now Barney, don’t blame God for the convoluted clusterfuck of bad choices you made.”

People want to blame the great beyond, when they ought to blame themselves.

I realize sometimes things really do happen for a reason. Aunt Bea carefully and lovely makes a pie with a flakey crust she fills with fresh apples and lots of sugar and cinnamon. Floyd the Barber coos, “Oooo, Bea, that’s gooood pie!” The pie was good, “for a reason.” Earnest T. Bass throws a brick through the jewelry store window and Andy takes him to jail. Earnest T. Bass went to jail, “for a reason.”

Cause and effect, plain and simple.

But that’s not what people mean when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” They’re talking mysticsm. They’re talking fate and inevitability, as if there’s nothing they could have done to make things turn out differently.

That’s rarely true.

In one episode of Andy Griffth, Gomer outsings Barnie to win a spot on the Mayberry choir. If, “Everything happens for a reason,” is the mantra Barney repeats over and over to make peace with his disappointment, I accept that as reasonable. But if it’s the salve Barney rubs on his wounded ego – as if the unknowable blackness of the universe meant for him to fail, then I think he’s missing the point of the failure. Take singing lessons! Practice! But stop blaming fate!

And sometime things in fact don’t really happen for any reason whatsoever.

Truth is, I’m also in the, “Shit Happens,” camp. I’d like to think Howard Sprague would be in that camp with me. I can imagine his reasoning, professorial tone explaining to Thelma Lou that “there’s a lot of chaos in the world, entropy if you will, and so sometimes shit just happens.” Howard would explain to a disbelieving Thelma Lou in his familiar rising and falling notes that, “God didn’t pre-ordain everything and there’s no pre-written script dictating what will happen at every given moment to every single person. I think there are thousands or millions of possibilities depending on which turn you take or choice you make.”

"God doesn't direct every moment on earth?" Thelma Lou asks, searchingly." Howard answers with two words, "Free will."

If there’s ever a positive connotation to, “Everything happens for a reason,” it’s when offered in retrospect, when one realizes they’ve ended up in a good and happy place, despite the fact that something bad happened to them in the past, like they were meant to face that earlier obstacle so they could find true success later, somewhere else. Let's imagine Andy with his third season girlfriend, Helen Crump, looking back on his first season girlfriend, Ellie Walker. He might think he was always meant to find happiness with Helen, but first had to be tested by a breakup with Ellie. But I don’t believe that. When bad things happen, we adjust and learn, making the best of the situation we’re left in. If we’re really trying, it makes sense we’d end up in another good place. It doesn’t mean it was meant to be, it means we made-do with our situation. If the shit hadn’t happened with Ellie, and there’s no reason to believe it was inevitable, Andy wouldn’t need to hook up with Helen in season three. But things didn’t work out and so he adjusted and made things work with Helen.

Meant to be? Happened for a reason? That’s storybook talk. Andy made-do and Helen was a great gal. Isn’t that enough?

I think sometimes the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” is a like that single, pathetic bullet in Barney’s shirt pocket. Maybe people who say it lack intellectual or emotional ammo. They just have the one single bullet-phrase to explain the disappointment of failure. And the unthinking use of the phrase by otherwise intelligent people, like that lone bullet Barney has – meant for a gun with six chambers, is an embarrassment.

Though I’m an outspoken guy, most of the time I ignore it when people pointlessly say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just as Sheriff Taylor most often would, I purse my lips, smile knowingly and say nothing. 

It would take too long to explain all this anyway.

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