I don’t believe in karma in either the strict Hindu or Buddhist religious sense of the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct during the successive phases of the person’s existence, regarded as determining the person’s destiny (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000), or in the loosely-held American culture sense of karma-as-payback/reward. Neither do I believe in monotheistic notions of heaven and hell as places of reward/punishment (it bears noting that Judaism doesn’t traditionally share this essentially Hellenistic understanding of life after death — ideas about the afterlife and the extent to which people are rewarded or punished are a bit up for grabs and open to interpretation).
I’m not particularly clear on what I do believe — it could be that (as John Lennon said) death is just getting out of one car and into another; it could be that (as the pastor conducting the funeral for Canadian politician Jack Layton put it) we are not physical beings with souls, but rather souls who briefly put on physical form; it could be we just die and are done. I honestly have no idea, though I’m kind of hoping for some kind of carrying-on.
But regardless of All That We Cannot Know, I am pretty clear that the other stuff, the ideas of payback-and-damnation and/or crowns-of-heavenly-glory-and-really-good-parking-spaces, are simply powerfully human ideas that we’ve constructed because it’s just too painful to consider the possibility that those who hurt us will get away with it.
Indeed, I’ll take it a step further:
I often say that people who live ugly lives have to live with themselves and that’s punishment enough — but the truth is that even that’s not always true. If you’re Paul Ryan, for instance, or an Israeli settler, but are kind and loving within your own circles, true to your convictions and, I don’t know, make really good cake, any suffering you undergo as a direct result of the ugliness to which you’ve dedicated your life likely doesn’t read as punishment to you. It likely reads as That Which You Are Willing to Nobly Shoulder in the Name of the Cause. Just as I think of myself and my advocacy for social justice and against Israeli settlements.
There’s simply not a lot of recourse in our lived reality. Beyond the obvious questions of legal codes and courts of law — you know: sending folks to the hoosgow when they deserve it — I honestly think that all we can do is stop worrying about whether or not others get their comeuppance and focus entirely on our own lives.
Does this bring me joy? is a good place to start, but there is a lot that I do that brings me no joy at all and yet it must be done. Into this latter category falls a broad variety of things, from thinking about finances, to consistently doing the laundry, to continuing to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which, it should be noted, is kind of my job). Moreover, there is a whole lot of life, and there are a whole lot of lives, in which “joy” is at best a distant hope. Mostly there’s a lot of getting through our days and seeking a little bit of pleasure.
But there are moments when we get to choose – this way, or that way? Smile at the lady in our path, or keep our head down? Do the thing that we know needs doing, or let it slide until it’s past being doable? Take action on that thing that breaks our heart, or back away?
I don’t believe there’s any extra-curricular reward for choosing A, in any of those cases, nor do I believe there to be any punishment for Thing B. It’s true that when we treat people well, we are often treated well in return – but not always, and not exclusively. If we’re being nice in order to gain niceness, we’re going to be disappointed a lot.
But the only life I have is this one, right here. In this head, in this skin. It matters to me that I lay my head down at night, or at the end, believing myself to have tried my best. And in the end, that’s all I have control over. Even if I take revenge on someone who I believe deserves it — what do I know about how they see that revenge? And what does that tell me about me?
So, yeah: heaven, hell, karma-in-both-senses — not so much.
But I can aspire to being able to look myself in the eye.