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Everything Happens for a Reason: Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives

Everything Happens for a Reason: Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives

3.8 11
by Mira Kirshenbaum

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In each of our lives we are faced with events that seem inexplicable, unjust, even cruel—events that can shatter our perception of the world, our understanding of ourselves, and our faith in a higher power. Friends and family members often offer comfort with “Everything happens for a reason”—a simple, common phrase with an unbearably elusive


In each of our lives we are faced with events that seem inexplicable, unjust, even cruel—events that can shatter our perception of the world, our understanding of ourselves, and our faith in a higher power. Friends and family members often offer comfort with “Everything happens for a reason”—a simple, common phrase with an unbearably elusive meaning.

In Everything Happens for a Reason, psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum helps us understand the principles behind this frequently used phrase and provides us with tools to grasp its true meaning. According to Kirshenbaum, there is significance to each of the events in our lives. We all can discover meaning in what has happened to us—seeing such occurrences as gifts, lessons, or opportunities that we might not have been able to get any other way. Building on more than twenty-five years of clinical research, Kirshenbaum has developed tests to help readers decode the confusing or unfortunate events in their lives and find solace and strength in the positive outcomes that exist.

Kirshenbaum offers ten universal reasons for the tragedies in our lives, among them letting go of fear, radically accepting ourselves, becoming a truly good person, finding forgiveness, and discovering our mission.

While coming to terms with unexpected loss and disappointment is never easy, Everything Happens for a Reason empowers readers to embrace the positive and comprehend the specific message that is larger and more powerful than their grief.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
If you believe that "everything happens for a reason," you might find solace in this well-written self-help guide by psychotherapist Kirshenbaum (best known for the relationship guide Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay). Her premise is that "that no matter what happens to you, not only does something valuable come out of it but it's just what you need." Kirshenbaum details in separate chapters the 10 possible life lessons one might learn from unhappy life events, ranging from self-acceptance, feeling at home in the world and letting go of fear to finding true love or your hidden talents. Readers answer diagnostic questions to determine which lesson might be theirs. There is also a wealth of advice, such as a seven-step method to overcome fear and a list of the 10 elements of true love. Kirshenbaum is careful to note that what you learn doesn't make up for what you have lost. Still, the case studies always end positively. And some don't ring true: how likely is it that a mother will see the birth of a very sick infant as an opportunity to let go of fear? If you don't believe there is comfort to be found in life's worst events, this book isn't for you. But if you've undergone a tragedy and are desperate to find meaning in it, Kirshenbaum's smooth, comforting tone may give you some direction. Agent, Howard Morhaim. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In a self-help book reminiscent of Harold S. Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, psychotherapist Kirshenbaum (The Emotional Energy Factor; clinical director Chestnut Hill Inst., Boston) purports to reveal the meaning of life or at least the meaning of negative events in our lives. She hopes to explain in ten easy steps why bad things happen to us and what we can learn from these events. As she observes, "The reason something happened to you was to make something better in your future. The cosmos worked hard to give you this gift, so you damned well better use it." While the message of making virtue of necessity is hardly novel, Kirshenbaum does provide a handy framework of questions to help readers assess what end is to be achieved by a given event. However reductive or frustrating to those with a more philosophical bent, this approach will undoubtedly help many readers. Strongly recommended for all public libraries.-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Mira Kirshenbaum is a wise and seasoned guide, her book a welcome map of the difficult terrain of life.” —Dr. Dorothy Firman, coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Mother and Daughter Soul

“In a loving universe everything does happen for a reason, and in Mira Kirshenbaum’s book we are persuaded that the universe always has our best interests at heart—even in our darkest moments.”—Gavin de Becker, bestselling author of The Gift of Fear

“Brilliant, beautiful, and bound to make a profound difference in all of our lives.” —Debra Waterhouse, M.P.H., R.D.,bestselling author of Outsmarting Female Fatigue

“One of life’s wonderful surprises. Insightful, wise, and warm.” —Mary J. Shomon, bestselling author of Living Well with Hypothyroidism

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Read an Excerpt

Is it really true that everything happens for a reason? After all, that's an amazing thing to say—that no matter what happens to you, not only does something valuable come out of it but it's just what you need.

Amazing as it sounds, it is true. It's taken me a long time, but I now see that even in the worst disaster—and I've had my share—there are wonderful gifts, hidden opportunities, or life-enhancing lessons. And we couldn't have gotten them any other way. If someone as hardheaded as I am can come to understand this, anyone can.

Of course, sometimes it's easy for us to believe that everything happens for a reason. We see it in little ways, like when our plans for an evening out fall through at the last minute, and we discover that everything we really want is at home that night anyway.

And sometimes we see it in not-so-little ways. A woman I know wrenched her back and had to spend a month in bed. She felt this was the last thing she needed in her life, particularly since it happened at a time when she had to make some important decisions. And then it hit her—this was exactly what she needed. Her old habit had been to rush impetuously into a new decision without thinking it through. Now it was as if life were saying, "If you won't give yourself time to think, I will."

We very much want to believe that the things that happen to us have great meaning. It's the way we feel life should be. Yes, some days we feel our life's a soap opera. But we want—we need—to have the sense that there's a purpose and value to it all. And we're right.

I want to reassure you: When you discover the true meaning of the events in your life, everything changes.

You feel stronger because your sense that everything has meaning gives you great confidence.

You feel wiser because you see how everything connects.

You're more in touch with who you are because you know that you're living the life you were meant to lead.

And you're happier because you're able to put your loss behind you and have a sense of a future filled with good things.

Until you get to this place, nothing is going to feel right. Let's say you're outdoors and you suddenly feel a drop of moisture fall on your head. You're not going to be able to think of anything else until you figure out why that happened. Is water dripping from some air conditioner up high? Is it starting to rain? Is a flying monkey peeing on your head? You have to know why that drop of moisture fell on your head because you can't feel safe going forward until you do.

We need to know why much more when what fell on our heads is a catastrophe. If you can't make sense of the catastrophe, it's as if your life is mere dice on a crap table—if nothing has any meaning, everything's random, anything can happen.

It's painful to live not knowing why you got so sick that time or why you lost the love of your life—much more painful than people suspect. One woman I know was flying home for Thanksgiving when she was in college. As the plane was flying along twenty thousand feet in the air, she developed a terrible earache. But that's not what made her cry. In the dark of a nighttime flight she was sobbing because there was pain like this in the world, seemingly without any rhyme or reason.

One guy described this feeling differently: "When I think about the bad stuff that's happened in my life, I feel I'm just a goddamn fool of the cosmos. It's humiliating! On a sidewalk crowded with people, I'm the one who's stepped in the dog poop. No one else is as stupid or unlucky as I am. The problem is: How can I go forward, how can I trust the future if I feel I am this stupid unlucky guy?"

Knowing that there's a reason for what happens also saves us from being filled with blame. Blame is a very human attempt to make sense of some catastrophe, but most of the time we hate the way it feels. And yet when something bad happens to us, it's almost a reflex to think, It's because everyone hates me, because I'm a loser, because I'm doomed. And so the blame begins.

We blame other people, and then we end up with the sense that the world is full of bad people. We blame ourselves, and then instead of feeling healthy, strong, and whole we see ourselves as sick, weak, and broken. And we blame life itself. What could be more demoralizing than feeling condemned to having bad things always happen to us and not being able to do anything about it?

Blame is like a boomerang that loops around and bonks us on the noggin. Try this yourself: If you see someone struggling with sadness, anxiety, and negativity, listen to his story. You'll soon see he's living in a world where all he sees are things to blame because he lives without positive meanings for what's happened to him. The only cure is to restore the sense that there is a good reason for everything that happens.

Explain That, Why Don't You?

Years ago, if you'd said to me, "Everything happens for a reason," I'd have said that was a lot of bull. Things happened in my life that were so painful it's no wonder I'd had trouble finding their meaning, and I gave up looking. I now know that was a big mistake.

Lots of things happen to us that challenge our sense that everything happens for a reason. It can be anything. You get seriously ill at the worst possible moment. You think you've found the love of your life but something goes haywire between you and now the two of you are over. You've had one of those really painful childhoods. You screw up and lose a lot of money. Someone you love dies.

Yeah, we think, maybe there's a meaning for some things that happen, but not for this.

And even if we still have a shred of faith left that there is meaning in these events, we don't know how to find it. After all, the events in our lives don't come to us with labels attached telling us what they mean. We can spend years searching in vain. We ask friends, but they haven't gone through what we have. We ask someone who has gone through something similar, but that person is probably struggling to find meaning, too.

At some point we might be tempted to give up the search. That's what happened to me. It took one of my patients to wake me up and give me the hope that we can discover the meaning of the events in our lives. Everything important I've learned about how to do my job I've learned from my patients. Scott* was one of my best "teachers."

The Message in the Bottle

We all have dreams of what we'd like to do with our lives. When Scott first came to see me many years ago he was dreaming about going back to school and becoming a landscape designer. But he was afraid to give up his well-paying job. As you can imagine, addressing underlying issues of anxiety, low self-esteem, and identity played an important role in our work together. Soon, though, our work was all about helping him get what he needed to make his dream come true. He ultimately completed a two-year program at an excellent school and eventually opened his own little landscape-design business. He felt fulfilled.

Several years later Scott came back to work with me. Sadly, he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he thought he was dying. (Scott's cancer eventually went into remission. He's still okay.) He said he wanted to discover why this terrible disease had happened to him just when his life was starting to work out. "Isn't this really a theological question?" I asked Scott. Truthfully, I didn't want to deal with a question like this. My attitude at that time was that you could never find an answer. And anyway, the most important thing is to make the best use of the time you have remaining. Why ask why?

But Scott, bless him, held onto his need. He was about to teach me an important lesson about how helping people is ultimately about helping them find meaning. After I'd dismissed his question Scott looked at me with tears in his eyes as if I'd betrayed him and said, "You don't understand. I don't want to die feeling like I was just some squirrel that got run over on the highway of life—hey, man, bad luck. I know that I'm not just a victim of a game of chance. I can't believe that I live in a universe where the things that happen to us don't have any meaning. There is some meaning in this, a message in a bottle for me. The message feels just out of reach, but it's very important to me. Help me get that message."

Somehow that got through to me. I remembered how much I, too, had wanted to get that message back when I was a kid. (In a few moments I'll tell you about all the things that had happened to me and my family that left me hungry to find some kind of meaning and how discouraged I got when I didn't think I could find any.) Looking in Scott's eyes, I lost my sense of being pissed off at the universe because the things that happen to us don't come neatly labeled with their true meanings. Scott's need reawakened my own and all the hopes that came with it. I'd thought my need for meaning was dead. I'd acted as if it were dead. But the utter genuineness and validity of Scott's need made me realize that my own need for meaning had never died. Suddenly I felt a whole new connection to Scott, to my younger self, and to a world of people who were hungry to feel that what happens to them has meaning.

There was just one problem: How in the world could I help Scott discover why he'd gotten sick and might die if I couldn't help myself? I found myself terribly moved as I told him that I saw how this situation should have meaning and then confessed that I didn't know how to help him find that meaning. I felt I'd failed him. And I felt terrible about it. But I made a promise to myself that I would learn how to help people find the true meanings of the events in their lives.

Scott called several months later. He obviously wasn't as disappointed in me as I was in myself. I guess we all know how tough this search is. He had a note of triumph in his voice.

"I know why I got sick!" he said. "Look at where I was in my life. I'd made a lot of progress, but I was still frightened of so many things—flying, confrontations, bad news, you name it. Here's the gift getting sick gave me. Every day I'm learning not to be afraid, big-time. Death is the big confrontation. Once you face death, how can you be afraid of, like, someone rejecting you? You know, it's true: Cowards die a thousand deaths, heroes die but once. I'd rather live a short life without fear than the living death of a long life filled with fear.

"And I wouldn't have discovered any of this if I hadn't gotten sick. I don't know how much time I have left to live, but in the time I have left I'm feeling more alive and less afraid than I ever did before."

Everyone who survives something feels they have a new lease on life. But Scott felt he had a new lease on life even when he thought he was dying. Understanding that there was meaning in what was happening to him, discovering what that meaning was, made all the difference for him.

It made all the difference for me, too.

A Voyage of Discovery

That was the beginning of my own voyage of discovery. Wow, I thought, it really changes everything if you can discover the reason why some life event has overtaken you. But I was still skeptical—I was far from convinced that Scott had discovered the real reason why he'd gotten sick or if a real reason could be discovered. But it had meaning for him, and as a therapist, I had to take this seriously. Just imagine, I thought, if I could help other people discover what Scott was lucky enough to discover. . . .

Deep down, of course, I knew how badly I needed this myself.

My Story

I'm sure I've had more than my share of blessings. I've been happily married for a long time. I have two great kids. I have good friends. Over the years it's been my privilege to help hundreds of thousands of people, and I love my work. So maybe you're wondering, "Hey, what does Mira know about what it's like to go through something really bad?" Good question.

I grew up with loss baked in my bones. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I lost the entire world in which I was supposed to grow up. Yeah, my parents survived. But everyone else in my family was killed: my mother's seven brothers and sisters, my father's five, all four of my grandparents.

I also lost the early years of my childhood. I was smuggled across Europe at the bottom of a hay wagon. I almost died of dysentery when I was three months old. I lived in a refugee camp for the first four years of my life. A barracks full of grown-ups recovering from shattered lives doesn't make for a good-time nursery school.

When I was four my life again turned upside down and inside out. I lost my father and my sister—my parents had gotten divorced and my father and my sister disappeared from my life. Then I left the only world I'd known, the refugee camp, to come to America.

When I arrived in New York I was so skinny that one of my distant relatives burst into tears when he saw me. My mother went to work in a clothing factory, and I had to take care of my brother. She eventually remarried, but my stepfather was no bargain. And we were poor—I didn't get a new dress until I was ten, and I bought it for myself with the money I'd earned baby-sitting.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

MIRA KIRSHENBAUM is a psychotherapist and researcher and the clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston, where she has practiced for twenty-five years. She is the author of six previous books, including the influential Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay and Parent/Teen Breakthrough.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Everything Happens for a Reason: Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
mggm More than 1 year ago
If your life has been turned upside down and you can't get to the why of the matter, you need this book now. Mira Kirshenbaum provides the tools for self-discovery, serious analysis (with perfectly timed humor and sensitivity), and a way to start figuring out how you got to where you are. I first picked up this book at a crossroads in my life; reading it then helped me get to the core of who I really am and what I really want out of life. Recently, a friend asked me if I was familiar with the author, and if I had ever read this title in particular. That conversation led to a second reading, a chance to look at things I'd missed the first time, and a re-discovery that everything does happen for a reason. Are you ready to tap into the reasons behind the events in your life?
kbabie More than 1 year ago
I actually bought this book for my boyfriend who was going through a hard time, but wound up reading it myself (he's not one for books). All I can say is it truly helps you to put life into perspective and may strengthen your confidence that it will all turn out OK.
readsalotinoh More than 1 year ago
Most of us wonder why things happen and hope that there is a reason for what happens to us along the way. This book has questions to help you decipher the reason and points out the obvious answer may not be the correct one. You might not like the answers you discern from this book but they will resonate within you. I've now read the book twice and will share it with both clients and friends. Don't get stuck on why me, move forward.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I¿m given a book with a title like Everything Happens For a Reason, I sit up and take notice, as that statement has always been a part of my own belief system. Clients continue to fill my days with the very question 'Why did this have to happen to me?', so a book with the subtitle of Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives was intriguing. The author, Mira Kirshenbaum, sounds like a sensitive psychotherapist and has written several other bestsellers with equally interesting titles: Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay; The Gift of a Year; and Women & Love. In her new book, Kirshenbaum strives to bring meaning and comfort into everything that we experience, especially our tragedies. Not a small undertaking in my opinion. Kirshenbaum¿s work represents years of statistical and (as she calls it) seat-of-the-pants analysis in which she strove to find patterns that would represent ten different universal meanings that would explain all the events in our lives. I love a good system that attempts to simplify. She allots a chapter to each of the ten, fleshing them out with explanations, examples and often questions that familiarize one with the principle. I admit I was at a loss to find an event in my own life that did not fit into one or another of her principles. Take a look at a few of them yourself and you¿ll see what I mean. Reason Three: to show you that you can let go of your fear; Reason Five: to help you uncover your true hidden talent; Reason Eight: to help you discover the play in life; Reason Ten: to help you become a truly good person. If Kirshenbaum¿s explanations give you a sense of meaning and comfort, they have served its purpose completely, for being able to recognize, understand and accept the conditions in our life is the only way we can ever truly embrace it.
Sagalitti More than 1 year ago
I'm generally not a reader of pop psychology and/or glib self-help tomes, but this book practically jumped off the shelf and into the crook of my arm! It was a brisk read, the author didn't belabor her 10 talking points or the personal stories interspersed throughout. To say that the past 5 years have been daunting ones for me would be a gross understatement. This book gave me some basic common sense guidelines that I can apply immediately to ameliorate the aftermath of stress and hardship, and to work towards getting myself back on track without feeling like a victim who's been divested of my last shred of self esteem.
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PiccoultFan More than 1 year ago
I got to about page 30 before throwing this book across the room. I was looking for a book to help shed some light on life experiences, but this was not for me. I am a believer of "everything happens for a reason" but not because of this book. The author presents several "reasons" for why things happen, but the reasons are so broad and general that they lack meaning. I didn't find this book to be "smart." To be honest, some of it made me angry, like suggesting that the death of an infant was a sign for the parent to "pursue their writing hobby." Ugh. Skip this.