The Trouble With Karma

The concept of karma has been around for thousands of years. I confess to having mixed feelings about it. In eastern religions, it refers to the idea that what a person does in past lives and in the present affects the quality of her or his life or perhaps determines certain aspects of it. This concept is summed up in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad statement that whatsoever deed a man does, “that he will reap.” A similar sentiment appears in Christian gospels, including in Galatians 6:7: “…whatsoever a man soweth, that he also shall reap.” Today people in the western world often say “what goes around comes around.”

Karma offers a sense of fairness to life. It is an attempt to explain why some people’s circumstances are so different from others’. In some countries, those differences include into what caste a person is born. In the United States, too, there are vast differences in how much wealth people have, how happy they are, and how much good fortune or misfortune comes their way. These differences seem random and inequitable.

My statue of Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion.

For instance, one of my friends is an attorney who started his career as a cop, and his wife is a teacher. They have three adult children. One is an attorney, one is a detective, and one is a teacher. On the flipside, in his criminal defense practice, that same friend often represents more than one generation of a family. He gets referrals from clients he defended of their children, brothers, and cousins when they are arrested. Certainly some of the differences between his grown children and those of some of his clients are due to choices all the people involved made. But it’s hard to imagine that it had nothing to do with the families into which those people happened to be born. My friend’s experience, both personal and professional, is not unique. According to a recent New York Times analysis reported by The Atlantic, sons of senators are about “8,500 times more likely to become senators than the average American man.” Also, while the United States is wonderful country for many reasons, including that people can move between income levels and social classes, most people earn $1.33 for every dollar their parents earned, so having high or low earning parents has a significant effect on a person’s economic well-being. (Business Insider, 2014.) Karma proposes a way that all these differences make sense. It also allows a greater feeling of control over life. If what we do has specific and predictable effects, we can make better decisions and achieve more. We won’t feel so blown about by each random wind.

The trouble with karma, though—or at least one problem I have with the concept—is that it can feel a lot like blaming the victim and can lead to a lack of compassion for yourself and others. If you are diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse dies, or you suffer from depression, it’s easy to start feeling you must have done something wrong to deserve it. Often other people and our culture reinforce this idea. There are tons of books out there on positive thinking, choosing and directing our thoughts, and positive energy. I’ve found many of them extremely helpful, including Think and Grow Rich and Awaken the Giant Within. But the idea that we always get what we deserve or even that we draw everything around us into our lives can be hurtful. We all know people who help others, have good values, and generally have a positive attitude about life who still have awful things happen to them. In my own life, I think of my mom and dad. All their lives they volunteered with organizations, including ones that aided veterans, tutored recent immigrants, and provided financial help to people in difficult circumstances. They did their best to treat others well and donated to several charities each month despite having limited finances themselves. Yet they died in a violent, tragic way because one evening as they crossed the street on their way into church, they were hit by a drunk driver. I can’t imagine anything they did to deserve that. Nor can I imagine what children with cancer did to deserve it in this life or any other.

Which brings me to another issue I have with the way karma is often thought of. It can undercut the concept of responsibility. If my parents’ deaths were due to karma, or to “God’s plan,” for that matter, then the man who drove drunk is absolved of responsibility. That’s especially disturbing to me because he had two prior DUIs. Further, if we believe that people who are poor or uninsured or ill are that way due to karma, we as a society might be less motivated to change circumstances that contribute to that. After all, it’s all their own fault, right?

For these reasons, I am not a fan of the idea that we always get what we deserve, that good is always rewarded with good, and that people who have bad things to happen to them have always brought that into their lives in one way or another.

Despite all that, in a certain way, I do believe in karma. I believe that on an emotional level, to some extent what goes around comes around. It seems to me that the people who, for the most part, treat others well and try to be fair and kind are usually happier than those who spend a lot of time talking and thinking about how to one up others, or undermine them, or get revenge on them. For one thing, how we treat others often dictates how they treat us. In all my jobs, from working as a cashier at a discount store to representing large corporations in lawsuits, when I’m courteous and treat people with respect, nearly all of them eventually respond in kind, even the ones who started out rude and belligerent. Of course there are a few exceptions, but they really have been few.

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In contrast, in my first year as a lawyer, I worked with a more senior attorney who held grudges. If anyone slighted him, and he often felt slighted, he went out of his way to make their lives difficult. Though he was smart and a good lawyer, he found it hard to get enough work because people didn’t like being around him and so didn’t tend to ask him to be a part of their cases. He also had trouble getting much work done because he spent so much time fuming and plotting. Both meant he was always on the edge of losing his job. That fear reinforced all his negative feelings, creating a vicious cycle of unhappiness and insecurity.

Being kind to and caring about others also makes it easier to have friends and close family-like relationships. There are studies showing that the more friends and close ties people have following heart surgery, the better their recoveries, regardless of other health factors. And while behaving in a positive way toward others doesn’t guarantee us good health or good fortune, it does affect how we deal with difficulties and how much we enjoy the good times in life. So my conclusion is that karma is less of an actual force or a determiner of the events outside our control, such as accidents, serious illnesses, and death, than it is simply a cause and effect in personal relationships.

What about you? Have you seen karma operate in your life?


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears andTwo Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.