I put “karma” in quotes, because I mean the “what goes around comes around” platitude and variations of that.
What most people think of when they are blithely commenting that something is the result of karma, is this notion that if you do good, you get good things in return.
And if you do bad, you somehow get punished for it down the road.
It’s the idea that the world is run on a checks and balances system, and sometimes people use the physical orderliness of the universe (again, physics) to argue that it applies to human affairs as well.
No, it doesn’t.
Human behavior, while dictated in many ways (environment, genetics) by the physical world, is not controlled in any way by an orderly system.
Because humans are not orderly – we are messy, inconsistent beings who do wildly unpredictable things on occasion and often do things for which there are no consequences.
It’s this whole “the universe revolves around me and my desires” attitude, coupled with a “God-as-vending-machine” belief thrown in to explain why some people are wealthy and some are not.
Aside #1: “God-as-vending-machine” is the Prosperity Gospel idea of praying for monetary things while giving a donation to some religious
scam artist organization. In goes the prayer and money, and out pops a blessing!
Added to that is the “the world HAS to be fair, or it makes no sense to me” notion that many people hold because they cannot imagine the alternative – that the world is NOT fair, and often things happen which are unfair and make no sense, like childhood cancer, for example.
What prompted this blog post were a few things:
- Something I hear/read sometimes, not only about me but about others who try to point out crappy things – with the intent that someone will take action and help. It’s this: “But you’re so nayyyyy-gah-tive!”
- Then there’s the rage-inducing comment about someone’s good fortune, whether it is big or small: “karma.”
- And, finally, the equally rage-inducing comment about someone’s bad behavior: “what goes around, comes around.”
I say “rage-inducing” because, well, it makes me angry to hear/read things like that. Only smug people say things like that, and I have a very low tolerance for smug.
And while some might argue that people say these kinds of things without thinking, I’m here to tell those people that it is coming off as smug to many of us who are suffering.
So tell those “unthinking people” to think before they say things like that, ok? Help them become more self-aware.
These types of comments are sometimes followed by a comment about how one is rewarded in the afterlife for a life of suffering, so it’s all good.
Let’s just not address the afterlife thing, because no one knows if there is an afterlife. We could get stuck on that discussion forever. Even people who agree there is an afterlife, cannot agree on what it’s like.
But…telling someone who is suffering that it’s ok because after they die it will all cease is very cruel, no matter what religion/belief system says it. It’s cruel because it implies that nothing needs to be done to end their suffering and pain.
Aside #2: And in the case of Mother Teresa, that kind of thinking was indeed used to do nothing about peoples’ pain and suffering. See “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” by Christopher Hitchens, and “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict” written by Aroup Chatterjee (this man is a native of Calcutta, where Mother Teresa did the majority of her
evil “work”). That second book might be hard to find, as it appears the publisher no longer has a website.
I want to address this whole idea that everything everyone does has some kind of cosmic relevance that all gets spewed back out in a system of punishments and rewards.
Aside #3: Please don’t write and tell me I have completely misinterpreted the Buddhist notion of karma, as I am not addressing that. I know nothing about Buddhism. I am merely commenting on the pop-culture version of karma, with all its implications.
Now I know some of you are thinking, “Wow she gets upset over the throwaway ‘karma’ comment!” Yeah, I know.
But the whole point of my blog (and, indeed, it seems the whole point of my life) is to raise awareness of the consequences – intended and otherwise – of people’s words, good and bad.
Words do have impact. Words reflect thoughts, and they can also change others’ thinking.
Words lead to action, or encourage inaction, and that has material consequences on the world.
Words and actions do not end up being recorded in some kind of ethereal book somewhere, with some deity or deities sitting around deciding what actions and words prompt a reward or punishment for the speaker/doer.
If this were the case, then why is there suffering for children and animals and other innocents? What did they do to deserve the horrors they face?
There are 3 responses to this from people who assert that “everything happens for a reason” (another platitude I really hate):
- We don’t know why, as God/whatever deity you worship works in ways we do not understand. We just have to trust that he/she knows best.
- They did something in a past life to merit suffering in this one. Or, they chose to suffer in this life, between this life and their last one.
- Newton’s Third Law: “For every action force there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction force.” (“Identifying Action and Reaction Force Pairs”, The Physics Classroom website, no date or author given)
This last one is the easiest to dispute, as it confuses causality with intention.
In other words, things that happen do have a cause – for example, hurricanes are caused by atmospheric and oceanic conditions.
But hurricanes do not possess intention: no hurricane set itself in motion to punish certain groups of people who are ultimately devastated by them.
People who state “everything happens for a reason” are stating that everything that happens is a direct result of intention, and I’m sure you can think of many reasons why this isn’t true.
Hurricanes being the one that came to my mind. Now, if you really do believe that hurricanes are “sent” to punish people, you would then have to go on to explain what those people – in some cases, millions of people – did to get something horrible like that imposed on them by some deity, or by the hurricane itself.
If you can answer that with certainty, we really have no dialogue because you are then arguing from a position of faith, and that’s not something people can have rational discourse about.
Or, to use an even more mundane example, let’s take the case of a car accident where someone’s loved one has passed.
Sometimes people try to comfort the relatives by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”
And, while it is tempting to retort, “Of course it happened for a reason – the reason was someone got behind the wheel drunk, hit their car, and they died, you idiot!” that’s not what the would-be comforter meant at all.
No, what was meant was, “This accident happened because, in the grand scheme of things, my deity decided it had to happen. I don’t know how it fits, but just be comforted that it does, somehow.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this at all comforting. In fact, if I thought my deity did something so cruel in order to carry out some sort of overall plan, I’d be really pissed off about that.
Some deity decided he/she needed to kill my loved one because it fulfilled some kind of overall plan, and didn’t even have the decency to explain it?
No, that just doesn’t seem to fit at all, actually.
The first two reasons behind the idea that “everything happens for a reason” are things that can’t really be addressed properly, because it’s all faith-based in some form or another.