“This was meant to be”, “there must be a higher purpose behind it”, “everything is exactly as it is supposed to be”.
Remarks easily made among the spiritually inclined. Often, statements like these are made in the face of situations or events that seem meaningless, tragic or cruel. Accidents, diseases, grave setbacks put our sense of justice to the test. Why does this happen to me, why did this have to happen? The notion that behind everything that occurs there is a higher order, a divine hand that means well, is reassuring. But is it true?
The idea that everything happens as it should, is a deterministic notion: it states that there is a higher power who predetermines what is going to happen in our earthly lives. This higher power may be God, or your soul or higher self. Whatever it is, the creative power does not belong to you, but to this higher source. The idea that we as human beings have free will and can make free choices is thereby severely affected.
Thus, a paradox arises: starting from a spiritual worldview, most people consider their power to make choices and take responsibility for their life to be essential to who they are. If it weren’t for that power, the whole notion of inner growth and transformation would become obsolete. At the same time, there’s the statement, often sounding like an invocation, that “everything is as it should be”, or as others put it, “everything is in divine order”.
This “glad tiding” that everything is really going as it is supposed to, both amazes and annoys me. First of all, there is massive suffering on earth, which is obvious from glancing through a random newspaper on any day. There is intense suffering on physical, emotional and spiritual levels in many, many human beings, as well as in nature. So how’s everything exactly as it should be?! Second, there is the above mentioned paradox that free will and predestination do not sit well together. This is a point worthy of consideration when you bring up the idea that all is well and in divine order. Third, I have noticed that putting forward this message often goes together with a typical note of pity, a kind of spiritual condescension, conveying something like: “Ah, child, I see you do not yet understand, caught as you are in your all-too-human doubts and moods and emotions, but there is indeed a higher meaning behind all that’s happening, and one day you too will witness it.” People often mean well, I am sure, but still…
When I had just healed from a severe depression with psychotic episodes in 2010, and was still struggling to come to terms with this horrific experience, someone said to me: “it is pretty clear that you had to go through this, and that the purpose of it was that it has enabled you to now help people with similar afflictions”. I could not respond to this suggestion as I was gasping for breath, but later on I realised that there were in fact three implicit suggestions being made: 1. The depression was predetermined and I could not have prevented it, 2. It happened for my own good even though it felt terrible, and 3. The spiritual purpose behind it all was that it would make me a better teacher and healer for other people. The latter suggestion instantly promoted me to martyrdom. What really happened was that I had sacrificed myself and had gone through hell for the salvation of others. Oh my. Kind of flattering to be put on a pedestal like that; but I suspect one has a shaky balance up there.
What stands out about all three suggestions is the big gap between the way I felt about what had happened and the “actual” spiritual truth. What felt succinctly bad to me was “really” a good thing, what I had wanted to prevent most of all had “really” been predetermined and what I experienced as my personal trial during the depression was “really” something I took upon myself in order to become a better teacher for others. The anger, sadness and dismay I felt afterwards about what had happened to me, were simply the ramblings of my ego which could not surrender to the higher order of things. This example shows a general line of reasoning which can be applied to many different situations. The general tendency is to look at an event or situation which at first sight seems terrible, tragic or absurd, and then smooth it down with the help of the spiritual tenet that “things are always exactly as they should be” or “there’s a divine order governing events so at a deeper level all is well”.
What to do with this typical smoothing down approach? The notion that everything is predetermined and proceeds according to divine will, cannot be refuted on logical grounds. It is an irrefutable metaphysical claim, which cannot be falsified (or confirmed!) by empirical evidence. However, it does conflict with our deeply felt sense that we are able to influence our lives, that we have free will and the power to choose. The notion that “all is well as it is” or “all is as it is supposed to be” is in conflict with how we feel in everyday life. Whenever a spiritual tenet is flagrantly at odds with common sense, with our everyday gut feelings, this raises a red flag for me. I believe that true spirituality is quite compatible with our natural instincts and intuitions. Even more, I believe that it is through our feeling nature that we can connect with our souls. More than the mind and the ideologies it makes up, it is the heart, the locus of our feelings and intuitions, that forms the gateway to spiritual truth. Whenever there is a big gap between what feels genuinely good and true to you and what a spiritual teaching professes to be good and true, I would always choose in favor of human feeling as the proper touchstone. The air of complacent superiority with which counterintuitive spiritual claims are often made doesn’t help either.
But what then? If things are not predetermined, if there is no higher meaning behind all that happens, is life then a mere play of coincidence? Is there no bigger story, no purpose to it all? And if it is all free and open, and you still believe in God, why does God allow so much pain and suffering; what would be the explanation of that? I would like to argue that there are spiritually meaningful reasons why things happen as they do, but that does not mean that what happens is good and right. There is a reason for everything, but that does not imply that it should have happened. My claim is that there is a difference between acknowledging a spiritual logic behind events that occur, and believing in predestination. There are indeed spiritual laws at work in our lives, but they are not at odds with our free will.
To clarify what I mean let’s apply it to the example above. My depression was clearly caused by fears and negative beliefs inside of me. I believe it belongs to my soul’s purpose to bring these fears and negative beliefs to the surface of my awareness at some point, so that they may be healed. But that does not mean things had to happen exactly in the way they did, or that I had no choice about what transpired in my life. I remember clearly that before the depression really took hold (and I had to be hospitalized), I received several signals, especially from my body, that showed me I was very stressed and should apply the brakes. I failed to really do that, and that was not predetermined. There is an explanation for the fact that I did not act upon my intuitive hunches and body signals: I was afraid to fail, afraid to say ‘no’ to people, because I valued their recognition and feared rejection. This explains why I did not apply the brakes in time; however, even though there were definite reasons in place, it was still my choice. The very fact that I was aware of those signals and hunches, shows that there was room for choice.
So, in hindsight I made some poor choices. Now, there’s not much use in blaming oneself endlessly about the less than fortunate choices one has made in the past. Reproaching oneself in a harsh manner gives rise to feelings of guilt which are destructive and counterproductive (I speak from personal experience here). To pass judgment on oneself is not very useful. However, to say that I could not help any of it because it was supposed to happen is like going to the other extreme; this is pure denial. There is no getting around the fact that I could have made other choices. The best way of looking back on this is with an eye of compassion and mildness. By being compassionate toward yourself, you acknowledge that you are a fallible human being, and it actually becomes easier to learn from your mistakes.
If you are able to forgive yourself, you can see the pitfalls of the past as meaningful lessons which have enabled you to gain insight and make better choices in the future. In that way, tragic situations may become purposeful and meaningful, not because they are intrinsically good or desirable (they often aren’t), but because you are prepared to learn from them and even be transformed by them. Thus, whether something is spiritually meaningful is not determined by the objective events themselves, but by the way you experience and interpret them.
In this way, free will and a certain degree of predetermination can be reconciled. Imagine that your soul wanted to live through certain experiences in this lifetime. That is why your soul chose to be confronted with certain challenges, which were kind of pre-programmed into your life. Certain people you encounter, different opportunities or setbacks that come your way, may indeed be fixed beforehand. The pivotal question, however, is how you, the human you with free choice, will respond to these encounters and situations, and to what degree you can detect purpose and meaning in what happens to you. This is not fixed, and it is your soul’s ultimate purpose to embrace the lessons inherent in the challenges with love and acceptance. That way, you will make different choices in the future and attract more positive encounters and situations in your life, eliminating the need to face the same challenge time and again.
It is often very hard to respond to life’s gravest challenges with trust and acceptance. That’s why I say it is your soul’s ultimate goal. It is often a huge struggle to recognise the value of deep experiences of loss or pain or rejection. Resistance and despair are normal, and very human. Yet I do believe this is our soul’s deepest invitation to us: to embrace even the darkest part of our lives and of ourselves with understanding and warmth, not because it is “good as it is”, but because accepting and working with it is the only way out. It is the only way into the light.
When I was in the middle of my psychotic depression, I did not experience any meaning or sense in what I was going through. For my loved ones, it was a nightmare, too. I was eventually taken to the psychiatric ward of the hospital against my will. My recovery started there. After I recovered, I found out what it is like when deep suffering bears fruit. As soon as I turned toward the light and wanted to live again, I experienced deep joy and took note of the abundance in my life as never before. What was taken for granted before, became a source of wonder and profound gratitude. I would sometimes stop in front of my house, returning with groceries, and just marvel at the fact that there was a place for me on earth, where I could live with the two people I love most, my husband and daughter.
I was amazed at the genuine care and support given to me by people around me; what were acquaintances before, now became intimate friends. Not only did the complete breakdown that psychosis brings give me a new appreciation of what I took for granted before, it also gave me some lasting insights which now help me live my life with less fear and more fulfilment. A few years later, I wrote a book about my dark night of the soul, which helped me integrate the whole experience more fully and with the benefit of hindsight. After publishing this book (in Dutch – hope to publish it in English end of this year) I received letters from people who recognised themselves in my story and felt supported and comforted by it. Thus, my dark night of the soul gained in meaning. Gradually, this horrific experience appears in a different light, the light of healing and meaningfulness. However, this does not mean it was “supposed to happen” or that it was “really” a good thing.
Is everything as it should be? Is all well as it is? No! There is much suffering and tragedy on earth. I do believe we attract some negative situations in our lives to become aware of the negativity inside of us (anger, fear, distrust). These situations may in part be pre-arranged. But the purpose behind those challenges is that we make different choices in the future so that we can let go of the negativity and stop attracting it into our lives. A painful or tragic event is not intrinsically good or valuable; it will become that only when humans have the courage and clarity of mind to find meaning in it and be transformed by it. We have a choice in how we respond to “what is”. We have the potential to transform negativity and pain by our inner attitude, and to make life more light and joyful for ourselves and others. This is the true purpose of spirituality. The higher order which we so desperately seek behind the external events in our lives, does not lie outside of us. We need to create it ourselves: that is our mission as free children of God.