The Philosophical Crutch
The Crutch is pretty pervasive among modern Pagans and it comes in many different variations. Some of these variations masquerade as theology (“This is a lesson from a higher power”) or as eschatology (“You must’ve chosen to experience this before you were born”) but it all boils down to the same thing:
“everything happens for a reason.”
This pseudo-philosophical explanation is often paraded out when Pagans face adversities or tragedies, oftentimes as a sort of coping mechanism for those circumstances. It attempts a philosophical explanation for the events to which we find ourselves subject but it fails miserably. It’s not philosophy–there’s no rationale, no reason, and no critical reflection or introspection. In fact, it is the opposite of philosophy: dogma.
Let’s be clear, though: everything does happen for a reason. That is, everything has a cause. Everything that happens to us, every circumstance in which we find ourselves, and every event we witness or in which we participate happened because of conditions set in motion by our own actions or the actions (and inactions) of others. Many of these things began moving long before we were born and many more were set before our grandparents were conceived. But having a reason is not the same as having purpose. That’s what people who espouse the dogma of the Crutch actually mean. They are saying that everything that happens to us has a purpose or meaning and that, if true, is quite problematic in at least three different ways.
It was all planned long ago.
If everything that happens must happen for a purpose, then it must necessarily have been planned and caused by an intelligence intervening in one’s life. If an event that occurred has a purpose for the person (or persons) to whom it happens, then it must have been intended for them for that purpose and the conditions and circumstances which led to the event must have been manipulated and set before the event itself occurred. There are, as one can imagine, thousands of circumstances one must manipulate in order to get just the right combination to lead another into a specific event. We many thousands of choices everyday–turn right or left, leave early or on time, take the bus or a cab, etc–and all of these variables must be accounted for if the right circumstance is to occur to lead one to any particular event. Indeed, not only our own actions and circumstances but every other action and circumstance of our universe–the many billions of threads that intersect with our own–must be accounted for and shaped. And if these variables, the very decisions we all make every day, are being manipulated then we have no free will. If everything that happens has a purpose, then our actions must be planned and our lives predestined.
It’s not your fault.
Following from the first problem: if our lives are predestined and our actions predetermined, then we have no agency in our own lives. No amount of reflection or introspection makes a bit of difference on our choices, ultimately, because our actions were predetermined long before we were born. Having no agency, we must not then have any responsibility for our actions. How can one be responsible for deeds one had no choice in making? How can we be held accountable? How can we hold each other accountable for misdeeds and violations? We can’t. It’s not possible. If all is predetermined, we have no free will, we have no agency, then we have neither responsibility nor accountability for our actions. Nothing is our choice and nothing is our fault.
An unethical and immoral Universe.
If everything that happens to us is not by our own making but by the power and decree of a greater power, then all of human suffering both great and small is by its design and will. This power would necessarily be responsible for personal misdeeds and personal tragedies like the time someone stole your identity and destroyed your credit or the death caused by a drunk driver to great injustices and atrocities like slavery and ethnic cleansing. And all for what purpose? A lesson, a motivation, an experience? There is no lesson to be had in the experience of being murdered. There is no value to being a newborn who dies at birth. If everything happens for a purpose, then we find ourselves in a Universe where those who suffer and die become merely fodder for the lessons and experiences of others. They have been determined to be acceptable collateral damage by whatever power designed this Universe that purposefully causes everything that happens. And so, we must find moral lacking in the very design of such a Universe and thus with its Creator, which constitutes a whole other set of problems and quandaries.
Therefore, if one does not believe that we are Will-less creatures predestined to act in accordance with some greater power’s plan, if one does believe that we are capable of willful choices and are responsible and accountable for those choices, and if one does not believe that the Universe was created by a morally-questionable and ethically-impaired power, then one must reason that while everything may have a cause, it does not have a purpose. But that isn’t to say we cannot find meaning in the tragic and terrible things that happen to us. We can certainly draw or make meaning out of anything. In fact, it’s one skill for which humans are singularly well-suited. Living in a Universe where events don’t have purpose is quite liberating in that way because it means the tragedy in your life does not have to define you, you have the ability to assign meaning and learn from it, and you have the agency and power to change your circumstances to navigate the future endless possibilities. As someone wiser than me often says: “Shit happens and fucks you up, so fuck shit up right back.”