I don’t believe in Karma (the New Age version, that is, which for the purposes of this discussion I’m separating from the Hindu and Buddhist versions thereof). Or the Threefold Law. Or any other attempt to stuff morality and ethics into a nice, neat proportionate package, which I’ll abbreviate as Karma/3FL. Karma/3FL states that if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you, and if you do good things then you’ll receive that good in return, sometimes in the same proportion, sometimes in some set multiple like three.
Karma/3FL is a way for people to give themselves a sense of having more more control over the external world than they actually do. Or, if they don’t have direct control, they want to be able to put themselves at the mercy of someone or something that does. Hence you have people wanting to believe that bad people get what they deserve no matter what and that some invisible force above us all makes it so.
At the other end of the supposed spectrum there’s senseless chaos. Why, if we didn’t have Karma/3FL, then bad people would just keep doing bad things without consequence, and good people would keep getting hurt for no apparent reason. To an extent that is the world we live in. There are people who die of old age having spent their lives abusing others with impunity and reaping the benefits thereof. There are wonderful people who die too young, after hard lives of unfairness. Karma/3FL is a great way to distract ourselves from that perceived imbalance and to pretend that, behind the scenes, really those bad people were suffering in private, while the good people find riches despite their suffering. (For a truly esoteric extension of this, just look at how many people comfort themselves with the idea that this person went to heaven, but that person is being punished in hell, now that they’re all dead. If they didn’t get their just desserts in this life, well, by golly, they’ll get them in the next!)
We really have no proof of this balance beyond confirmation bias, that bugaboo of thoughts that keeps us blinded to anything except that which supports our beliefs. If Nasty Individual has five good things and one bad thing happen to them, we conveniently ignore the first five and only focus on the last; supposedly that’s enough proof that they got their due. Yet people keep thinking in this regard because it comforts them more than the idea that the dastardly villain got away with it after all; that injustice is unfathomable. It’s easier to weave a fantasy around it in self-defense than to live with that stark reality.
This is the cognitive error that Karma/3FL can promote: the idea that the world is more just than it is (see “just world hypothesis”), and a justification of empathic laziness. It makes people make up stories of an ordered world to protect themselves from a world of chaos, but in doing so it also dampens compassion for those who are just “getting what they deserve”. It’s mean-spirited besides; in fact, I feel that at the heart of Karma/3FL there’s a distinct streak of Schadenfreude.
I prefer to think of being in a world of agency and acceptance. Agency means that we do have free will and ultimately our lives and the decisions we make are all on us. It can be scary the moment we come to realize that there’s no one else holding the steering wheel of our lives—that we’re it. There’s no great balancing force that “makes everything better”; there’s just us and the choices we make. And the claiming of that agency is terrifying, so much that many of us dive right into denial at the thought.
The answer to that is acceptance. Crying about the fact that there’s no one to make our decisions for us isn’t acceptance. Pretending that that mean person who hurt us is secretly wracked by three times as much pain isn’t acceptance. Passively “letting Karma/3FL do its job” isn’t acceptance. Acceptance is allowing things to be as they are, no matter how seemingly injust, and acting from there.
Acceptance also means accepting that there are many, many factors that we simply cannot control. Humans have built up our species on control; we control our environment and other species, as well as other humans, to an unprecedented degree. So we stamp our feet and throw tantrums when we reach the end of our ability to act in a particular direction. We don’t know when enough is enough. If we don’t control everything, then everything falls apart—or so we think. We want to impose order on the world, personally and globally, because it makes us feel safer from the things we actually don’t have any control over.
Yet there is already order in the world, albeit a more organic one. I take comfort in the fact that the world is made up of systems that have developed over millions upon millions of years, from the atmosphere and weather patterns to continental drift to the biological imperative to procreate. These were not created by beings that were trying to pretend they had more control than they do, but beings accepting (not necessarily consciously) that the world is a particular way in this moment, and this is how to adapt to survive it. Non-biological systems were shaped by the laws of physics—pressures and movements and speeds and resistances—all predictable and knowable at some level. Instead of screaming and ranting when these systems don’t do what I want, I can flow with them as as being who developed within them, and I find comfort in that.
Like earthquakes. I can’t stop an earthquake. If Portland got hit by The Big One tomorrow, there’s not a damned thing I could do to stop it. But I can educate myself on what to do if it hits, and what resources I need, and what to do in the aftermath. Comforting myself with the idea that the earthquake happened for some abstract reason, or that maybe some bad people lost their homes or even died in it, certainly is no replacement for preparedness. In fact, making up stories about how earthquakes happen to punish bad people (I’m looking at you, Pat Robertson) just distracts time and attention away from knowing more about plate tectonics and how that study may someday help us predict earthquakes and save lives.
In the same way as preparing for the reality of an earthquake instead of my control-freak fantasies about it, I can’t just patch over the ugliness in the world by pretending that Karma/3FL has it all covered and that it all “happens for a reason”. Instead, it’s my task and even duty to roll up my sleeves and work to make this world a better, more compassionate place, not to earn myself karma points, but because the world isn’t just, and I can do something to help those caught in the injustice. It’s something that requires me to challenge myself and my perceptions on a daily basis, to be vulnerable even when it’s terrifying, and to be courageous even when I tremble. I have to leave the comfortable realm of black and white and get messy in the gray areas in between.
And I have willingly cast off the blinders of Karma/3FL in favor of embracing my agency and my ability to act within the world, even as I learn the boundaries I have to work within. True, there’s the challenge of getting over the fear of lack of control, and acceptance of the limitations of my agency, however frustrating that may be. But isn’t it more productive to maximize the use of the control I actually have rather than engage in spiritual and mental fantasizing over control that I can’t, and will never, have? That, I think, is worth facing the fear of the loss of control and the false promises of balance that Karma/3FL claims.