Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.
My take is simple: Karma is bullshit – the greatest lie ever told. In truth, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards death and destruction. The universe is either utterly indifferent to your suffering or it actively seeks to destroy you and repurpose your molecules for other uses. In no way, shape or form is it your friend. In no way, shape or form is it balanced or just. If there is evil in the world then it is nature. If there is a God then he is a demon. If there is fate then ours is doom.
This story only has one ending and it ends with the extinction of all life. Good will not ultimately be rewarded. Evil will not ultimately be punished. The story will simply end. It is not just. It is not fair. It is not OK.
The only remedy open to us is to fight daily for our survival and our values. To live in open defiance of the physical laws that will eventually extinguish us. To suck every ounce of happiness from the world before it is done. To eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow the universe will grow cold and all life will die.
And, to along the way, ease the suffering of those we can. Suffering is not a lesson or a just dessert. It is an evolved mechanism that serves not our purposes but the purposes of natural selection. Poverty is not the punishment for ills but where the evil of nature has not yet been beaten into temporary submission. It is an uncaring universe crushing our brethren underfoot.
This will not end well, because nothing ends well. In the end, the universe, like the house, always wins. Yet, we do not have to tolerate agony and pain all the way up until our inevitable demise.
We live. We love. We laugh in defiance of that inevitability. If we have our heads on straight we’ll do it right up until the cold, bitter, utterly unjust and utterly unavoidable end. We are mortals – those who die. That fact should infuse our every value and animate our every action.
When my loved ones take ill they sometimes ask me –with hope in their eyes – “Am I going to die?” Yes, I answer, I cannot change that. But not today.