When I was a child I used to play a game called “Consequences” that required at least another player, a couple of sheets of paper and a pen each. The idea was to create a, (usually risqué – depending on our age!), scenario that would make us roar with laughter or fall out, depending on what was written. In case you’ve never heard of this game and, I’m not sure that it will have survived the emergence of the computer age, let me explain. Each person secretly writes the name of a girl, usually one of those present (unless we were trying to be mean to someone in particular!) at the top of their sheet of paper. They then fold down the paper so that no one else can see what’s written and pass it on to the next person. The second entry on the sheet was the name of a boy – again, maybe someone we all fancied, hated or … well … Donny Osmond was pretty popular then! Again the paper was folded down, passed on to the next person and, with each turn, entries listed: a place; what happened there; and, what the consequence was. Sometimes we added “he said”, and “she said” but not always. Needless to say, some of this fed our fantasies, or horrified us, but what it always did was make us consider the possibilities and think, “What if?…”

An example?



Well, it is my article!

On reflection, I think that this game was a pretty good lesson in life. There were elements that you had control over, most of it you didn’t, but the consequences came about anyway. The kinder you were to your fellow players, the nicer they were to you and you mutually brought about lovely outcomes for each other. If you decided to be mean, you were likely to suffer in the next game.

In real life, however, the unknown factors are so much more powerful and random, and our own influence over the outcomes varies according to our individual feelings of empowerment at any particular time. Being “nice” doesn’t always help because life is not fair – we do not always get what we deserve no matter how hard we try.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people when I’ve challenged their idea that “Everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I have no sense of “a higher plan”, and can’t help believing that people are trying to impose a psychological order on a disorganised world using the benefit of hindsight to fill in the gaps of why they are where they are.

True! I wouldn’t have my three lovely children if I hadn’t met Pete at university having gone through University Clearing after messing up my A Levels. Was that “fate” or “consequences”? Just think of the lovely children I might have had, if I had done better in my exams and gone to Kingston on Thames – they might have been Michel Roux Junior’s and, I wouldn’t be missing Pete, because I wouldn’t have been aware of his existence. Sorry Pete!

Of course this is just an illustration of different ways of thinking and I’m not seriously regretting my life and saying “What if?” That’s only worthwhile doing before the event when you can have some influence over what will happen, and then you only have limited influence over which path you will end up on.

A contentious view? Maybe. But this psychological bias for people to apply an order on the world has been recognised in a recent study by psychologist, Nicholas Hune-Brown, who calls the phenomenon the “Just World Hypothesis”. In an unjust world where people are slaughtered because of their religion, because they express their opinions, because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, through no fault of their own, it seems that people extend their belief in the order of things to blame the victims of somehow bringing about the atrocity. This has been seen repeatedly through recent world events: the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was followed by an increase in Anti-Semitism; the killings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo were followed by a backlash that the victims brought it upon themselves. In the cold light of day, it is obvious that the victims are victims: that the rape victim didn’t ask to be raped by wearing attractive clothes; or, that it wasn’t inevitable that the young driver would be killed when they hit black ice on the road in their inexperience. When looked at like this, it seems cruel that people would seek out ways of justifying disasters in life, but there is a tendency to do this, to give the impression that there is some order in the world. Maybe it allows for a belief that you only get what you deserve, and that the world is actually a safe place.

On the other hand, this way of blaming the victim only applies to other people. When it comes to ourselves, we buy ourselves self-esteem when we feel that what happens to us is out of our control; that there is a higher being that has a reason for leading us along a certain path. However, in my view, we can only really bring about changes in our lives if we feel a conviction that we are the only one that cares enough to create our own future. If we think that some more powerful force has plans for us, we surrender to chance and coincidence and get swept along with the currents wherever they may take us. And, then the danger is that once we see where we end up, we mentally backtrack along the route we came along and somehow label each turn as “having been meant to be”. It’s not a pre-planned path, it’s just where another random factor steered you.

So why do I think that it matters whether everyone believes that everything happens for a reason or not?

  1. Firstly, injustices in the world will continue unless we recognise that the people who suffer have not done anything to deserve their circumstances. There is no justification for being born into poverty or to die of ebola. Whilst there may be only a limited amount that we can do about it on an individual basis, dismissing the injustice as part of a higher plan should be seen as it is: a comfort to the believer, but ineffectual in the long run.
  2. Not only do many people suffer undeservedly, but many people prosper when there is equally as little justification. The world isn’t fair in either case, and an acceptance of this fact is incredibly liberating. Expecting “fairness” in life is unrealistic – some people will do well; some people won’t. Everyone has a random starting point of where and when they are born, who and how their parents are, and, if and how they are educated. That’s just for a starter. Expecting fairness from the world implies that you have a pre-ordained right to something that others don’t have – aah, of course, that’s because they don’t deserve it! Seriously though, the reason that people dwell on their past misfortunes so much, is because they feel it’s unjustified. Of course it is unjustified, but letting it go is essential, and the best way I know of doing this is, by recognising that shit happens! – hypnotherapy is very good at helping people see this of course.
  3. Thirdly, there’s a tendency to abandon control of the areas of our lives where we are in control. Drifting along believing that something “Wasn’t meant to be” stops us from finding ways to bring it into being. How many businesses have died a death because their owners have trusted in the Universe for guidance?

There are things that we are in control of, and things that we are not. Applying our understanding of each of those areas: reacting flexibly to uncontrolled aspects in our lives; and taking the reins of those we can influence; allows us to gain a sense of control. Acknowledging the fact that some people have few areas they can influence will also help us to understand how people’s lives can reach such dreadful depths.

The Serenity Prayer made famous through Alcoholics Anonymous expresses this perfectly … despite the irony that it’s addressed to god!:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference


(Originally published in NSPH Journal January 2015)

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