Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, an old boyfriend bought me a lapel pin at a street fair that said “My karma ran over my dogma.” The pun was both funny and a little bit true. I talked way too much about karma at the time, even though it was a subject about which I knew very little.
Nowadays, I’m not the only one. Karma is commonly discussed pretty much everywhere, from casual conversations to the media. But what do we really mean when we speak about karma, instant or otherwise?
”I’m sending you good karma,” a friend cheerfully told me in an e-mail recently. Much as I’d welcome some, is it transferable? In another context, a different friend dismissed a difficult situation by saying “I guess it was their karma.” Isn’t this another way of justifying a failure to act? At the very least, it quickly put an end to the conversation.
At its worst, “karma” can become a cudgel with which to batter people who have suffered a tragedy, as if it’s their own fault that things completely accidental and beyond their control turned out so badly. Hollye Dexter in her memoir “Fire Season: My Journey from Ruin to Redemption” tells of a devastating house fire that she and her family were lucky to escape alive. Afterward, certain friends shrugged it off with remarks like “gee, you must have some really bad karma.”
Karma talk in this case is a finger-pointing exercise, and a way to distance oneself from the disaster. It’s like citing fate or destiny, but with fault attached—which is less than helpful to the person involved.
A twist on karma, likewise used as a way to explain the inexplicable, is the idea that we create our own reality and even our health by our thoughts and actions. It’s true that there’s much worth exploring in the mind/body connection. However, it shouldn’t be used as a way to victimize sick people.
A friend once described her harrowing experience with uterine cancer, a journey that included surgery, suffering and months of chemo. It didn’t help to have friends insist she had caused her own illness, whether through missteps in diet or lifestyle, wrong thinking, character flaws or (dare we say?) karma.
The sad truth is we simply don’t know what to say that’s helpful or consoling when something awful happens to someone. We might tell a grieving person that their loved one’s death was “God’s will,” but this is not useful to hear when you’re hurting. As my friend Mary said after her husband died, “If one more person tells me he’s in a better place, I’m going to scream.”
Here’s a suggestion. Let’s put aside the bromides and keep our ideas about karma to ourselves, and instead dish up heaps of simple compassion when confronting calamity. Before assuring someone that “when one door closes, another one opens,” let’s take a moment to properly mourn whatever was behind that closed door.