This is what you get when you mess with us

Note:  I try to keep my philosophical musings to a more theoretical/universal level so they don’t fall into the trap of anecdotal irrelevance.  However, on this particular topic, my recent experience is too fitting to ignore.  Considering the voyeuristic nature of our culture, this is probably the type of thing that I should be writing about regularly if I want more readers.

Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself

Oh, karma (karma karma karma karma chameleon).

In my experience, even for people who claim to be agnostic or spiritually skeptical, the idea of karma still holds weight.  They will not subscribe to the larger Buddhist philosophy behind the concept, but they’ll freely ascribe events to the rules of moral cause and effect.  The idea, stripped of all of its broader implications, can be simplified to this:  If you do bad things, bad things will happen back to you (the less often mentioned corollary is that if you do good things, good things will happen to you).

“Karma” is the lazy shorthand for the juvenile but persistent belief that there is universal justice, and even the most hard-nosed rationalists among us (myself included) indulges in the fantasy when we are faced with an unpunished injustice, whether personal or global.

There are two frequent times when I hear people bring up karma.  The first is when straight arrows explain that they don’t ever break the rules because they just know the moment they go rogue, the universe will punish them.  The second is when friends are trying to comfort a mistreated friend by claiming that the universe will rectify the situation.

The first situation is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that offers apparent support for the concept.  In my experience, ‘good’ people (to be simplistic about it), are pretty lousy at being ‘bad’.  Either their guilty consciences cause them to give themselves away, or their relative inexperience at acting outside the bounds of their normal moral code leads them to screw it up.  It’s a classic case of misattributing the cause of the effect.  They aren’t being punished for doing bad, they just suck at it.  People who are routinely bad are better at it, thus they don’t get punished as much.  We know this is true because if ‘bad’ people were consistently punished for their deeds, there wouldn’t be any.

The second situation gets more traction in the popular imagination.  We all would like to think that people who hurt us will get their just desserts.  Unfortunately, it just isn’t the case.  Think about everyone’s favorite example of evil: Hitler.  The man who committed the most atrocities of the past century certainly should have been on the receiving end of the mother of all Karmic Retribution.  So, what happened to him?  He died.  By his own hand.

That’s hardly a punishment.  We all die.  If death is karma at work, then I guess we all lose.  (For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those people who believe in hell.)

But Hitler is too evil to grasp.  A topic of this level needs street level malfeasance.  We need personal wrongs.

Let me introduce someone:

My ex is a woman who cheated on a succession of boyfriends with multiple men over the period of years, I being one of the boyfriends.  Having opened up my unusual life (and my 10 Cities project) to her, I thought I would be the corrupting force in her life.  Certainly, her parents treated me as if that were the case.  How naive I was.

In the karmic version of the universe, her actions would warrant retribution.  It’s not that her misdeeds are so much more severe than others, or that infidelity is the unforgivable sin (though it is deeply traumatic in its violent abuse of trust).  My interest is in the pattern she has established.  Quixotically convincing herself of her pure-heart, she acknowledges the hurt she causes while justifying it for the sake of love.  It took a dramatic showdown between the two us for her to even grasp, slightly, how much harm her actions produced.

Cheating once is a horrible mistake.  Repeated infidelities represents a character trait.

The Karma Police claim that she (and her ilk) will reap what they sow.  Certainly in some cases, this is true.  But in plenty of other examples (and this one in particular), it is not so.  Her actions have led her from one man to the next, each one (including myself) willing to overlook the obvious warning signs, blinded by the overwhelming devotion she pours onto them.  She does not suffer for her actions.  She finds herself in the welcoming arms of another man, and if anyone will be punished, it is likely to be him.

Now it is possible that Justin Timberlake got it right and what goes around truly does come around, but all evidence suggests that there is no pattern to the splatter paint distribution of good and bad in our universe.  There is no cosmic force putting things right that once went wrong (and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home).

It is true that her character flaw may lead her to wreck yet another relationship, but if the pattern holds there will be yet another man in the wings (the benefit of cheating, there always is), her every loss countered by a gain.  This is the balance of the intrinsically corrupt:  The resulting backlash from their selfishness is offset by their gain, and at worse they break even.

Reality doesn’t support the belief in karma.  There are undoubtedly counterexamples from your life of wrongdoers who felt the sting for their actions.  But if karma is a capital ‘T’ truth (and as a religious doctrine, that is its claim), then even one exception disproves it.  The anecdotal histories are littered with bad people getting their comeuppance, but to truly unravel a universal concept, one must open the floodgates to the universe of examples, not just the ones that support your view.

The appeal of karma is obvious.  It’s the same as the belief in God, or in heaven and hell.  It provides us an ordered version of  the universe  where decency is rewarded and sins are punished.  In reality, the universe is random and if there is any sort of pattern, it’s that “Hurt people hurt people.”  Unfortunately, the abused person rarely gets the opportunity to punish the abuser.  They lash out at someone else, and that innocent person (at least in this particular matter) is punished for another person’s wrong.

Religious belief (whether it be formalized and organized, or the new agey pick-and-choose type) persuades people that the universe is ordered and logical, and ultimately fair.  But when life reveals that this isn’t true, moral foundations rot.

(That ex of mine?  She is a Christian.  Devoid of any deep theological understanding of the religion, but still nominally so.  What does she take from that religion?  Comfort from Jesus in her dark hours, but no reason to treat others with respect unless it benefits her.)

Morality based on unseen forces will always prove less resilient than morality based on justifiable respect for human (animal, global) value.

I’m not claiming all atheists have this.  Atheism isn’t a moral system.  Personally, my moral foundation hasn’t changed much since I was a WWJD-bracelet wearing Christian.  I’ve hurt people, of course I have, and I will continue to do so. I am not blameless:  I was one of the men my ex cheated with when she was with her previous boyfriend.  (I guess Karma got me.)

As with everything I write, there is an ideal and a reality, the latter never living up to the former.  I want to be a better person than I so often am, as most of us do.  My motivation for improvement, though, isn’t fear-based.  My unpunished wrongs don’t teach me, “No one’s watching, it’s a free-for-all!”  My desire is always to be a better person, even if my rough edges and crude language sometimes portrays me as a moral relativist.*

My morality is simple:  Do the best you can for the most people, regardless of artificial boundaries (class, race, state, country, etc.)  It’s the Golden Rule for the Global Age.

For every example of Karmic Payback, there is an example of shitty people getting away scott-free with being shit.  I have to accept that the universe may never punish my ex** (and in fact, it likely will reward her duplicitous nature with more willing bedfellows), just as you have to accept that the asshole in your life will likely slide in the cosmic court.  If revenge is your bag, I’m not totally opposed to it (I’ve indulged), but it’s the slipperiest of slopes and unless you’re completely in control, you’re playing a dangerous game.

For better or worse, no one is watching your back.  The true test of your character is how you act once you accept that.

*Here is where the religious trolls come out and say, “Better is a term of relations.  Better than what?  If you don’t believe in a central moral truth given by God, then everything must be relative and you can’t have any morality.”  There have been a myriad of books written on the biological view of ethics (for instance, this one), and I don’t feel the need to go into it in this post.

**This is not to say that she hasn’t had her fair share of hurt and pain in her life.  This speaks to the ‘Hurt people hurt people’ point.


6 thoughts on “This is what you get when you mess with us

  1. I’m watching your back. Lol.

    Also I’ve watched my own back and looking back at the people who once wronged me I see the fat red mark of the Karma slap outlined pretty clearly. So trust. Karma wears no watch but she always does show up. Just like Herpes.

  2. It’s interesting that you bring up the relativity of morality based on religious beliefs versus atheism.

    It made me ponder the impending argument that you made a great effort to quell before it came, and I think, that there are some other angles to look at on the matter that would be agreeable to your stance.

    One could say, that your idea of right and wrong, good and bad comes from indoctrination to such ideas by the opinion leaders throughout your existence, but I think that one could move outside of all previous indoctrinations on pure self determinism and actually observe for himself certain theories on why there is a good and bad and take Karma and any other metaphysics out of the equation.

    Let me theorize using evolution. It might not seem obvious to some, but to me, and I think you could also see how this could be, theories on evolution don’t necessarily bow to the idea that all is random(for example, natural selection)

    If you take the idea that some evolutions came from necessity – like indigenous peoples of areas of cold climates having more body hair than those of tropical climates. A minor example when you look at it, you could really prove this by starting at the cellular level, but I digress.

    Anyway, lets look at pain. Physical and Emotional. I am not even sure how the connection of the two “feelings” became associated with the same word, but what I do know is that pain is a sure sign that something undesirable has occurred.

    So if you can consider anything that causes pain is undesirable (most sane people would agree that pain is undesirable) then you can also see how anything that causes pleasure is desirable. Now I am not advocating a hedonistic viewpoint here, however, the basic idea of pain is bad and pleasure is good doesn’t have to mean anymore than breaking your thumb is bad and making someone smile is good.

    Of course some folks view of pleasure (as a word) is skewed, but I urge them to look it up.

    I think that it is perfectly reasonable for an Atheist to say that he tries to be a better person, if by better you mean try to cause the least pain and the most pleasure to yourself and others, and I think that the idea can be accepted in most religions, even if some religions unfortunately claim loopholes for fucking people over (asking Jesus for forgiveness is not exactly in the Bible, though, so I don’t think it will work.)

    A link to an example of 20 different religions that proclaim their own versions of the Golden Rule:

    At the end of the day you have to consider if the decisions you make are going to come back and bite you in the ass – some amount of prediction is required, but with the proper responsibility level (certainly your ex doesn’t quite have that, neither do most crack heads and I think Hitler was lacking it right up until the end . . . and then he got a good grasp on it and did the right thing) the prediction is as easy as cause and effect. What are you okay with causing and what will the effect be. I mean, even if you land yourself in an undesirable situation, (like getting cheated on) you can always trace the cause back to your own responsibility of it (like when you get ripped off by a drug dealer – uh, duh, he’s a criminal, c’mon, didn’t see that one coming) like the old Scorpion and turtle story

    Anyway . . . not to place the blame right on you or to make your ex wrong, or either of your beliefs for that matter . . . just to say that if she is causing effects that are undesirable and if she is not careful, Karma aside, someone might react to that, as undesirable effects tend to provoke such things. Your very public display of her adulterous ways (which is not too far from a metaphoric stoning) is just one example of a reaction that she probably was not prepared for. I can’t imagine what some of my ex douches would have done in your situation, but I’m sure at least one eye would have been swollen.

    And so, I rambled long enough.

    • Hey Wendy, I’ll have to say upfront that I’m not sure if you are trying to make a broader point in refutation of mine, or are just kind of stream of thought commenting on it.

      So my response isn’t meant as a counterargument, just as a continuation of my original points, and hopefully it serves as an answer of sorts to the points you’ve made.

      I do believe in Cause and Effect, so I accept that often one’s negative actions will have negative effects that will come back onto them (but just as likely will befall someone else entirely). I’d only argue that there’s no overarching rule (or force) that dictates that all actions (good or bad) are repaid.

      Now, we could say guilt is a sort of karmic payback, but what does that mean? Does anyone really think that feeling bad is on balance with the actual act? And what about psychopaths, the type of people who are incapable of feeling guilt? There is no karmic retribution for them.

      Guilt is merely an evolved biological trait that stuck with us because it helps keep people acting in a socially beneficial manner. Most morality has developed out of that same reason: Living in a society increases the odds of a person surviving long enough to spread their seed, so acting in a way that is beneficial for said society is also beneficial for the self.

      Your implication at the end is that what happened to me (being cheated on) was my own fault. I accept responsibility for my mistakes in the relationship, but I’m not sure how one can say they are connected. People make mistakes, sometimes those mistakes come back and bite them on the ass. Sometimes they don’t, though. Believing that every wrongdoing and every error somehow gets corrected sounds nice when we’re thinking about our enemies, but on the flipside, we have this idea of Mercy or Grace (especially in Christianity, but also in general) which is the idea that for some reason, we don’t get the punishment we deserve.

      Grace, Karma, Sin and Retribution, they’re all nice terms, and ways to try to explain the randomness of the universe, but the truth is, sometimes good people get the shaft and bad people slide. Because the universe is actually very unaccommodating to life, the scales are weighted towards tragedy. It’s a comforting thought to think that all the bad shit is happening for a reason (because if that’s true, we can learn the rules and avoid it), but alas, it isn’t so neat and orderly.

      As a closing note: I don’t think this blog post counts as a stoning since she doesn’t read it anymore as far as I know, and most of those who do read it have never met her (or will never see her again). But, I’m a writer and I write about my life, so if you’re going to be a treacherous soul in my life story, you’re gonna get written about. That’s not karma, that’s just life. Something bad might happen to her in her life (actually, no might about it, it will), but when it happens, it won’t be karma, it’ll just be this cruel, mindless universe throwing the stones.

  3. Given that we humans seem hard-wired to always look for meaning, patterns, karma, etc in life it’s just bizarre that what actually happens is truly so random. Another quirk of the human condition – unintelligent design, indeed!

  4. There almost certainly is no celestial sky that catches your good and bad deeds in waves and bounces them back in your direction. Nor is there likely to be a swirling force which makes you reap what you sow. Karma, for me, is the world you create yourself, for yourself via every act, every action, every decision, every movement, every thought, every excuse etc. You are bound to see the world and experience the world through the lens that you create through free will and a lot more subconscious manifestation. I think its logical that if a repetitive character trait of yours is an inability to put yourself in other peoples head and be selfish, that you will quite naturally reap the social consequences of this, and worse so, not understand why people act and treat you the way they do. In such a case one is likely to feel that they are suffering and being punished for something (divinely, spiritually, however) . I think there are many natural and logical consequences to repetitive actions, whether they are considered good or bad or whatever. Thats not to say such “consequences” are weighted, proportional, instant, fair, guaranteed or should even be called “consequences”. Karma in this sense cannot build up, you cannot wait for any punishment or reward. Nor could all “good” and “bad” events be seen as a result of the world you have created for yourself via your own actions, the world through the lens you have created willingly or not. Tons of random acts happen that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with your own subjective past. That earthquake is simply not retribution for stealing someone’s car. The word action and retribution don’t really apply. On a subconscious level, it may be the case, that when one repetitively commits bad actions, that they make themselves receptive to social problems, complications. They open themselves up to people who are as likely to commit such bad actions, giving the appearance of divine “karma”. Maybe yes, maybe not. But in any case, NONE of this stems from any cosmic balancing act by a super natural galactic order. As weak as this explanation may sound, I think this is the only meaningful way the word Karma can be used.

    • I think I generally agree with what you’re saying, up until the last sentence. There is no ‘meaningful’ way for the word Karma to be used. Karma has a meaning, and when we strip it of its universality and spiritual/otherworldly power, it ceases to be karma. Which is to say, there is no such thing as karma.

      Otherwise, yes, I agree, I think we do shape our world with our mind and actions, to a limited degree, and a crappy person will bring crap upon themselves on occasion. But, unfortunately, the universe is manifestly not fair and balanced. It’s a bit like Fox News in that way.

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