In biology, everything happens for a reason. Our bodies rely on complex systems of call-and-response, on the beautiful and articulate signaling pathways that enable life as we know it. Each action in our circulatory, nervous, digestive, and immune systems can be traced back to a stimulus, an underlying cause.
It’s easy to extend this biological fact to our human lives. Our brains are systematic processing centers, and we’re naturally inclined to sort our lives into orderly arrangements. Unable to embrace the overwhelming complexity of our world, we write the happenings of our existence off to fate, claiming that “everything happens for a reason.”
The reality of life—as distressing and unsettling as it may be—is that very little happens for a reason. There is no irrepressible plan or automatic response, as we observe in biological processes. There are often events for which we can find no justification, no sanity or sense. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.
This truth is something I’ve recently had to face with intensity. Several months ago, the brother of a friend of mine drowned in a river. Noam was 20 years old, a joyous and exuberant person. Our high school had thousands of students, but Noam stood out. The flashing memories I have of him are all tinged with sunlight; it felt that he had harnessed the bright energy of the sun and was channeling it into his world.
One of the first times I saw Noam was from the stands, watching a school soccer game. A player flitted across the field, deftly dribbling the ball through the pack of defenders. “Who is that?” I asked my friend, mesmerized by the player’s tangible confidence. “It’s Noam, Caleb’s older brother,” she replied. “He’s ridiculously talented.” Noam and our school’s team won the North Coast Section Championship that year, and Noam continued on to play Division I soccer in college.
The qualities that made Noam a captivating soccer player were also what made him a captivating person. His friends spoke of his empathy, his ability to listen and respond in a way that made the outside world fall away. They spoke of his wit and charisma, how he could make anyone laugh in that full-bellied way. Noam was a camp counselor—a fantastic one—and his campers spoke of both his goofiness and his reliability, of the wonderful world he created for them.
This summer, I was working on a tiny farm hundreds of miles from home. One of my good friends was working at Noam’s summer camp as a receptionist, taking calls in the office. One Thursday afternoon, I walked into my room after washing the dirt off and found she had texted me. Let me know when you can talk, I have some heartbreaking news to share. I love you. I dialed her immediately, heart pounding against my rib cage. When she picked up the phone, her breath was ragged, her voice trembling. My friend had received a call earlier that day from an EMT who had responded to an emergency call at a nearby swimming hole. “Noam has drowned,” she told me.
When I heard of his passing, it felt as though the world had split in two. On one side sat all reason and logic—on the other sat this terrible death and its profound heartbreak. It felt as though the universe had betrayed us, that it had ignored all rational thinking and the very fabric of life. Noam was too full of life, too intrinsic to our community, too young to die.
I cried with my friend on the phone, sobs tearing through my chest. The next time I saw my sister, I held her so tight that we couldn’t breathe, pressing her body into mine. With each friend, each family member, each person I interacted with, there was a new sense of urgency. I held their hands, I said “I love you” with wild ease, I spent time simply feeling the presence of those around me. Age and vivacity were no longer indisputable determinants in our livelihoods; my world sparkled with a transient glimmer, a sense that nothing was as permanent as I’d once imagined.
In the weeks following his passing, our community united. The countless lives Noam had touched drew together, a massive network of people with an invisible thread of connection.
It has been a devastating year; Noam’s death followed the loss of several other teens in our community, one of whom had been a close friend of Noam’s. True to the twisting nature of life, Noam grieved with us before becoming the one we grieved. Not just that—Noam taught us how to grieve.
After his passing, a mentor of his shared a piece of wisdom that came directly from Noam. While mourning that loss of one of his best friends, Noam had set aside a little time every day to grieve, and a lot of time every day to lean into joy. Whether that was through adventuring with his friends, entertaining his campers, playing soccer, or something else, the last few months of Noam’s life were spent leaning into joy.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, Noam was teaching us how to endure his own passing and move onwards. I think of him every day, and I allow myself to feel his absence in the world. I let grief sweep over my body for a moment, and then I release it. I allow the tears to build up behind my eyes, the breath to freeze in my chest, the adrenaline to course through my veins. For a moment, I feel my heart break for Noam, this terrible chasm fracturing my body into pieces. And then, I take a breath. I bring the pieces back together, let the pain roll over me and out of me. The rest of my day, I lean into joy. In the weeks following his passing, this could take intentional effort. Long bike rides along the water, hikes in the woods, swimming in the ocean; I found my joy in nature, so I spent as much time as possible outdoors.
Some friends found their joy in community, in sitting together. Others found it in art, cooking, or animals. I cannot imagine the grief that swept through Noam’s family and friends, but I know that despite this incomprehensible pain, they still chose to invest a tremendous effort in his wish that they lean into joy.
There is no justification or reason for Noam’s passing. It is heartbreaking, a cataclysmic tear of the web of the universe. In the weeks after Noam’s death, an adult in my life mentioned that “everything happens for a reason.” Bullshit, I thought. I’ve mourned the death of grandparents, of older family friends; never have I mourned the death of a 20-year-old until this summer. I hadn’t so intimately faced the desperate injustice that death can create, the wild frustration and uncertainty. We lost someone with so much left to give, with so much left to do. I have so much left to give, so much left to do!
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “Noam did not die for a reason.”
I sat with this understanding, and it hurt. Noam didn’t die for a reason. It felt terrible, that there could be such loss without purpose. And then, in an instant, understanding flashed through me: not everything happens for a reason, but I can find reason within everything that happens. I can take purpose from every moment, difficult or joyous. Finding purpose in the most dreadful of times allows us to find purpose in our existence, to find comfort and joy.
In 2005, David Kessler co-authored a book that laid out the five stages of grief, a system now widely used for those experiencing loss. The five stages were: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Fourteen years later, Kessler published Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. In it, he shares the realization he came to when facing the death of his 21-year-old son: finding purpose and meaning within a loss is necessary to transform grief into peace.
Kessler writes, “Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.” Kessler suggests different ways to find meaning, from rituals of commemoration to deepening connections with those around you to finding ways to honor those who pass. However, at the end of the day, meaning is subjective. We are responsible for finding our purpose within a loss. Kessler writes, “Death ends a life, but not our relationship, our love, or our hope.”
From Noam, I learned the importance of leaning into joy, while not ignoring our grief. From Noam’s death, I learned the importance of life. I am young, with a huge adventure ahead of me—but so was Noam. There is great uncertainty in our paths, events we cannot predict and shouldn’t attempt to. With death made so tangible, I imbue my life with energy in ways I didn’t before. I spend more time outside, less time on my phone; I work past fears that have inhibited me in the past; I pursue random interests, new connections, and indulgences. Life is ephemeral, but that shouldn’t be a source of fear. Rather, its impermanence should push us towards purpose. I found my purpose within Noam’s passing: to appreciate life, to love each day and each person. I channel the sunlight he carried within him into my own life. As Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after a storm. Why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”