Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Karma: A morality play... er, ploy

How could he, having a comfortable home and a full stomach and disposable income, blithely pass a homeless person on the street, not donating even a few meager coins to the haggard individual, and then expect any worthwhile good fortune to come his way?

Was it a matter of convincing himself that the spare change would not get the person off the street, would only facilitate the person’s situation another day without improving his lot in any significant way? Could it be as simple as assuming the person would only use any collected funds to purchase booze or drugs and therefore he was refraining from encouraging those destructive behaviors (that were only keeping the person down)? Might he approach it from the assumption the person didn’t want to rejoin mainstream society with all its pratfalls, and as a choice made consciously or unconsciously by the person that he need not feel compelled to support it? Need he tell himself were he to end up the victim of such a fate he wouldn’t expect to live off the pity of others, that if he couldn’t actively take steps to get back on track he would be better left to die in the gutter?

Would he be in the clear (as it were) if he genuinely believed that not giving to the panhandler was the right thing to do? Was that the standard by which karma judged good from bad? If so, he could not be denied any compensatory (albeit minor) benefit in some future scenario. However, were he just pretending to believe in the conviction of such action (or lack thereof) to assuage any guilt, would it not stand to reason that karma could not only deny him thusly but that karma would be obligated to inflict upon him some (minor) bad fortune?

Would it be wiser still to conclude the dispensing of fortune held no overall fairness, that it was ultimately arbitrary (at best), and that all for which one should hope was the absence of any really awful circumstances to befall one (such as whatever would lead one to be living on the street without any loved ones to come to one’s aid)?

As unsettling a thought as that was, he found some strange comfort in it. By the criteria that one need only believe one is doing right in order to deserve karmic reward, the true a-holes of the world—the egomaniacally self-centered, the hideously self-righteous, the incorrigibly inconsiderate—would need merely believe in their own minds that their actions were good, that they were justified in doing so, to be entitled to have situations turn in their favor more often than not.

What he feared most was that these individuals did believe it already, that whatever influence that should have set them on a better path had failed, and that all the breaks they got would simply continue to come their way because they were not tethered to the same mindset with which he had been saddled; their oblivion was their trump card in the game, but he could never have that because something inside him compelled him to comport himself in a manner he considered to be considerate of others.

If there were some universal standard of behavior that applied equally to everyone regardless of personal belief, the a-holes would get theirs eventually, and that was pleasing to consider, but it meant he was just as likely to be karmically screwed by his actions as he was to discover he truly had done right.

As he’d dismissed the beggar’s plea with nothing more than a half-hearted apology without even breaking stride, he had to dismiss the expectation that giving anything to the person would later result in something good happening to him; as long as there was neither the proverbial rhyme nor reason behind who got good things when, as long as it was out of his control in any way, there was a certain liberation to be found.

Anyway, it was a big world; he couldn’t be held responsible for all of its problems.

That night he slept an unfettered sleep, on a comfortable bed and not on a piece of sidewalk, solid in his conclusion that even if he didn’t do “good” by not giving to the beggar he at least didn’t do “bad” (he didn’t kick the man or spew insults as he passed, for example), and that there was something to be said for that in this day and age. Not much, but a little.

Besides, he thought, doing good should be motivated by genuine altruism, not fueled by the hope of some later reward from intangible forces. He didn’t always do good, but when he did, he did it for its own sake, without expectation of compensation. Perhaps the next day he will be of a different mood when passing the homeless person, and reach into his pocket and pull out whatever coins he finds and place them right in the dirty outstretched hand before proceeding on his way, without giving the beggar another thought. And whatever would come of it would come of it.

One thing was certain: He wouldn’t be donating any money to charity. Not only was that tainted by tax-deductibility, but those organizations were worse than the homeless; they would harangue you at home over and over until you succumbed to their guilt-inspiring implications or were worn down by their unwavering persistence. (What a-holes.)

Dealing with karma had to be a matter of carefully defining one’s criteria about it.