06 January 2016

Is There Good In All Things?

(By Danny)

The phrase "everything happens for a reason" is a phrase I don't really like. Perhaps there is truth in the phrase, but if there is, it is a very poor way to express it. It is often spoken by someone who has experienced pain, but with the benefit of hindsight can see how that pain pushed them to learn other important lessons. The only problem is, not everyone learns those lessons in the face of pain. Some people are crushed by their tragedies and never recover. For them, using this phrase to comfort them can be offensive.

I prefer "there can be meaning in all things". The difference is subtle, but it is important. It places the onus of finding meaning on the individual. You are the only one who decides if something people would label as "terrible" in life has meaning or not. You are the only one that decides if tragedy will lead you to triumph of some kind. No one else can do it for you.

Every now and then I stumble across a news story or a book from someone showing just how far the depths of this truth can go, and how accessible this truth is to Every. Single. Human. Being. Viktor Frankl is one of my favorites....he shows how a human being can be stripped of everything in a concentration camp, and yet still find meaning and peace and love. He wrote a book about it; I think it should be required reading for every human being.

A few months ago I came across another story, and another set of words that moved me.

Kayla Mueller was a humanitarian worker who was taken captive in Syria in 2013. Stories report that she was forced to marry ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and served as his sex-slave. There were other teenage sex slaves who escaped the same compound she was held in. They spoke of her bravery and strength. When given an opportunity to escape with them, she chose to stay back. She was concerned that her "foreign appearance would put them in danger while on the run."

She was eventually killed in what appears to be an airstrike against ISIS. Sometime before that, she was allowed to send a letter to her family. In that letter she recorded these touching words:
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else….+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.” 
She added, “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another.”
Powerful words for all of us to consider. Who among us doesn't feel constrained to a prison of some kind? Our job, our finances, our relationships or lack thereof, our health, our inability to have kids, or the fact that we have them and that too is difficult. If this woman could learn freedom IN her circumstances (very different than freedom FROM circumstances) in such a dire place and under such terrible conditions...can we not each learn how to do the same in some degree in our own lives?

There truly can be good in all things. But that "good" is always in the eye of the beholder. It is a personal decision, one that almost always involves some kind of surrender, and an acknowledgement that the peace we are looking for is ALWAYS found within. True transformation and deliverance is expressed and cultivated from the inside-out, not the other way around. Because of that, it can be found "even in prison".

I'm grateful Kayla's family felt it appropriate to share her words. For me, they cause me to redouble my commitment to pursuing meaning in all things, to allow even the bad in life to push me to develop this kind of inner peace in the face of all things. When pain is used to discover this inner-self that is capable of experiencing peace, freedom, and light in the midst of it all, then truly we learn that there can be meaning in all things.


Have you ever experienced peace IN difficult circumstances? Help inspire someone else! Share in the comment section so that others can see just what areas of life peace and meaning can touch when circumstances fail. What helped you find meaning and purpose?

Photo taken by our Brooklyn friend, Martin Harwood, on his way home from work. You can spot Lady Liberty in the distance. 


  1. Thank you, Danny, for the wonderful post. I had been a long time believer in the "everything happens for a reason" message. As you mentioned, I think it can serve you well particularly if you've experienced a lot of hardship. It says, "yes it happened, and even if you don't understand why in this moment you need to pick yourself up and keep going." Grief doesn't always work this way.

    Last summer I had a missed miscarriage. Sadly not the first one, but this particular one shook me to my core. For months I struggled to figure out the elusive "reason." What was I supposed to learn? I analyzed everything I had done, eaten, etc. I questioned whether I took my daughters for granted, whether I was enough of a mother. I turned over every stone looking for the reason and purpose.

    And then someone told me something that forever changed my feelings. What if the baby himself had a purpose? And perhaps that purpose was better served in heaven than here on earth with our family.

    Later that day I was in my car about to run into the store and a butterfly came and landed on my windshield and sat there. In that moment, as I watched this butterfly, I chose to believe in the words spoken to me earlier that day. I chose to honor my baby's purpose knowing he would watch over my family. My eyes filled with tears because for the first time in a long time, I had an overwhelming feeling of peace.

    1. Amy, this is truly beautiful. Thank you for sharing your experience, and what helped you find perspective. Know that you and John are truly LOVED, that we are grateful to know you, and delighted you've found some peace.

    2. Thank you, Danny. I suppose my point is that by saying "everything happens for a reason" implies we will know what that reason is, at least at some point. I believe there are times we don't, but we always, always get to choose to be at peace.

      Please know that we credit much of the good in our lives to you and Mara and are still so grateful for our retreat experience.

    3. In many ways, I very much agree with you. I often look back at my life, at all the ups and downs, and feel comfortable saying the words "you know, it's like every thing has happened for a reason". I also get that one of the reasons people say it is that they have past experience that suggests it is true, because they have indeed looked back on something difficult and seen something beautiful come out of it, and they are confident the same will be true of future unexpected and difficult moments, both in their own life and in the life of others.

      My only discomfort with the phrase is in saying it to someone else. Mainly because I don't know what phase of healing they might be in, or how ready they are to take an optimistic or hopeful path in response to their tragedy. Also, for some seeing the hand of God or of Providence in their tragedies can be somewhat automatic or at least more of a natural response. But for others, it can almost feel offensive to attribute the source of their pain to the Divine.

      Take someone who experience sexual abuse or rape or something similar. Were we to say to them "everything happens for a reason" they might feel obligated to believe that God was the author of that pain in order to work some greater good. And that just isn't going to sit right with some people, or with some circumstances. But to say "there can be meaning in all things" shifts the burden from saying "God wanted this to happen so that you can grow" into "even though terrible things happen, because of God growth is always possible."

      I know it may be semantics to some, and it doesn't bother me that people use the phrase, but I have a hard time saying it because it suggests the Divine somehow needs to be the author/approver of all that happens in our life, instead of the source that gets you through it.

      Hope that makes more sense. I considered elaborating more in the post, but then it would have taken away from the simplicity of the words of Kayla, which I loved.

      As for where to credit much of the good, I'll happily aim that right back at you and say that though Mara and I may have inspired it...you are the one who has done the hard work to take something beyond theory and make it truly come to life and part of your daily lived experience. That is a beautiful thing, and something no one can take away from you. Thank you for doing that.

      Much Love - Danny

    4. Danny I love this comment. I was just talking with someone about this and I love the distinction you've made. I personally don't believe God "causes" all our suffering. But like you said, through God we can make it meaningful.

      Good post too. Thanks.

    5. Danny I always appreciate your sensitivity to wording as I am someone who often feels that the slightest change in wording can shift the meaning significantly. To your bigger point above, I really love this and appreciate you sharing. I admit that at times the idea that anyone can be happy in any circumstance (or rather find happiness and joy in any circumstance) has not set well with me. But this was largely due to the limitations I felt within my own life, choices I was making but felt powerless to change. I don't feel powerless anymore, although I do think these things require a lot of work (which I think to some can feel impossible...rambling). Anyway, what a beautiful letter and this and Victor Frankel's book also remind me of The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. I'm sure you've read it, but if not you really should. Similar circumstances--concentration camp, abuse, deplorable conditions and a sister, Betsy, who radiates joy and love. And the discussion of forgiveness in that book is also a wonderful model for anyone who has had to forgive the unforgivable. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Loved this post, Danny, and that is a powerful story about Kayla. Also, I was finally convinced to buy A Man's Search for Meaning - although I did a lot of reading about the Holocaust in high school lately I have felt some trepidation about going back there. But, I was not let down by your guys' other recommendation of The Anatomy of Peace, so I just purchased it for my Kindle with narration. Thanks for the post and recommendation!

    1. You'll have to let me know what you think of it. Remember, I don't recommend it because the writing itself is the most amazing I've ever come across...but because he is a living/walking example of applying this truth in the worst kind of human experiences.

      I love a quote by Marcus Aurelius that describes why reading stories like Viktor's and Kayla's are so important - "Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also."

  3. I tend to believe that "all things happen for a reason," as this is my mental orientation when looking back at the hardships in my own life. Then I remember that grown men rape babies (yes, literally babies - I have a friend who has prosecuted men for raping a 5 week old, a 3 month old, and other babies and toddlers). And there is no reason for that or blessing to come from it. Same with genocide and lots of other human atrocities that most Americans are privileged not to experience. Best to try not to use that phrase.

  4. I really love this post. Surrendering to God and making the choice to see the beauty in or that can come from all of life's circumstances is something that I am working on. Kayla's words, "I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall," are so amazing and something to which I want to aspire. This post is beautiful and it speaks to me. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Yes, I have felt "cradled in freefall" and can only credit my God for these moments.
    1. I have been delivered from sting of persecution (friend who told me because of my beliefs we should not be friends; after that phone call, I found a quiet spot, poured out my heart and in prayer, listened, and learned that I was not alone, that it was worth it to be genuine and not ashamed of my story/my experiences, and that this woman was most likely striving to have integrity to her own values, and the focus should be on how thankful I was to have had so many meaningful memories with her up to that point=peace...not healing or full understanding, but yes to peace.
    2. I have been a child who was placed in a circumstance to know the details of adultery within my parents' marriage. I saw depression, pain, wailing, going without food, desperation, hopelessness, and fear play out over seconds, hours, days, years. But when I reached inward and upward for strength so I could be leaned upon (as late teen, early twenties individual), I had peace sponsored from another Source. I had protection from a spiral of depression and negativity. I had the power given to me to forgive and love the one who chose to hurt and the power given me to extend compassion to the one who was betrayed. I came to know this opportunity would be one that could teach me of what I could offer a future spouse and children (in terms of emotional and spiritual self-reliance and living the truth that we can still control our own path and have power to pursue hope and goodness that way). Again, there is STILL no real resolution to this scenario. There is still pain in that relationship, as they have, so far, decided to stay married (the affair was 20 years ago) and wrestle with issues over time. This raw scenario is a true teacher for me every single day.
    3. I have had many stomach/intestine surgeries and health troubles in my life. I had a series of ER visits where the pain would hit, I'd be in white-knuckle pain for hours until the right drug was found to help with pain, and most of the time, the visit culminated in a surgery and a long term recovery. I lost my entire colon ten years ago in my mid-twenties and had other surgeries too. The point of sharing this is that early on I felt what it was like to be floating down the lazy river of life one minute and hit by a tidal wave in the next. I came to know how sacred my body is and how the suffering I endured made me more compassionate, more thoughtful, more aligned with what really matters in life. After this shift, I would hit the ER and with each wave of pain thank God for the chance to have a body and live life in many circumstances so I could have a unique perspective to share, if it was my fortune to live. The very act of doing this in the moment of despair was very, very empowering. It was sanctifying and terrifying both, but it was laced with intricate and awe-inspiring peace that transcended my need to understand or to control the circumstances.
    The fruit of these experiences and choosing a path in them has led me to a rich life (and I'm only 37)! I know more pain will come, with heath, with relationships, with tragedy, with social injustice. But I know experiences are teachers, and admittedly, I still have a lot to learn.
    Thanks for this invitation to share and (hopefully) inspire!

    1. I LOVE THIS!!! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, I have no doubt someone will be able to draw some inspiration.

      Much love to you Sarah!

    2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience Sarah. I won't go into detail, but a lot of what you said hit home for me and I really needed that. Hope you have a fantastic day and keep on sharing the love.

  6. This post struck a particular chord in me as I have been facing a difficult trial lately. I realized that in all of my difficult circumstances that I have lived through, I've looked back and have been grateful that the trials weren't worse, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have wished that I never had to go through the trial in the first place. I would want to change it and make it go away.
    It wasn't until I embraced this recent trial and found gratitude for having it, that I felt the surrender that Danny and Mara write about so much. This was a difficult process and took a lot of soul work and diligent effort. However, after feeling an incredible feeling of peace and a surrender that I never thought possible, I would never wish things to be different because that would mean that I would not have learned the lessons that I needed to learn. No one else can find that meaning except you.
    Danny and Mara have changed my life because of this blog. I will be forever grateful!


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