This morning I was waiting at an imaging center so a photo could be taken of a lump my doctor assured me is nothing to be worried about. Naturally, I was panicked. Then something distracted me.
A tiny blond woman was weeping into her cell phone. She had cracked several bones in her arm while racing across an intersection. (New Yorkers, when will we learn?) She was a yoga teacher and the host of a weekly TV show. She was distraught about lost income, lost clients, and the inevitable cancellation of her new show. I asked her if she wanted to chat. She did.
She did a type of yoga that required handstands and super bendy poses. She was living month to month and didn’t know how she was going to make her rent. She cried through half a box of Kleenex.
A woman in a cashmere sweater looked up from the newspaper she had been pretending to read.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she assured the tiny blond.
If there is a less reasonable, more lunkheaded thing to say to anyone at any time, I don’t know what it is. I’ve come to believe that people actually use this phrase not to comfort a distressed person but to distance themselves from their pain. Never mind that it makes no sense.
I turned to cashmere lady and said:
“No, Madam, everything does NOT happen for a reason. I know what you think you mean. You think you mean that some good will come of it. Or that we ought not to be upset when disaster strikes because the universe has a plan. Actually, you have no idea what you mean and if I pushed your back to the wall and demanded you clarify this statement, you’d be reduced to tears yourself.”
I did not really say any of those things. I didn’t even glance in cashmere lady’s direction. I do administer tongue-lashings to out-of-line strangers on the streets of New York, but lazy irrationality doesn’t work me up. In fact, it drains me of any desire to debate.
I chatted with the yoga lady about my years as a ballet dancer and the toll they took in ruptured ligaments and cracked bones. I told her the name of the best surgical hospital in the city. I told her that you get a charming photo of your inflamed tissues the moment you come out of anesthesia. Morbid humor is often the best medicine. It conveys camaraderie and empathy. It conveys recognition of the seriousness of a person’s plight. It makes a person laugh.
My name was called and I was off to my own MRI.
Later, I waited for the elevator with a mother and her little girl.
Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get back to my own toddler. I told the little girl that I had a daughter about her age. (This is what parents do when we miss our kids: we tell other people’s kids about them.)
“Is she your first?” the mother asked me.
“We’ll see.” I replied. I assume that my miserable pregnancy, my fallow acting career and my financial status are not of interest to a stranger and “We’ll see” suffices.
The mother must have assumed my response had to do with my MRI. Maybe she thought I was gravely ill. She smiled at the wall of the elevator as we rode down.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
I considered yanking her hair and assuring her that it had happened for a reason.
As I walked into the early fall sunshine and headed to the cross-town bus, I thought about famine. I thought about the Holocaust, and Syria, and pediatric cancer. I thought about teenagers gunned down by police.
Everything does not happen for a reason.
This phrase-from-hell must be silenced. It ignores the most painful of realities: the universe’s indifference. It also emphasizes the indifference of people who use it — to the heartache of others, to common decency, to logic.
If you want to help someone in distress, buy her a cup of coffee or a cocktail. Tell her you have experienced something similar and you feel much better now. Tell her you understand how she feels, how unfair her circumstance is and how much it can hurt when fortune frowns on you. Smile. Tell her you are sorry she had some bad luck.
If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, but at least, I beg you, keep your indifference to yourself.
Just don’t say “everything happens for a reason.” Someone might give your hair a good yank. With very good reason.