Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Karmic Conniption

 Back four or five years ago, there was a little TV show called My Name is Earl.  It was a sitcom starring Jason Lee, and it had a simple premise: the lead character, Earl Hickey, was a pretty bad person, and one bad thing after another kept happening to him.  After one particular devastation, he vows to do good, specifically by making a list of everything he's ever done bad to someone, and making it up to the person, one by one.  The faith behind his actions is karma--for every good deed he does, he claims, something good will happen to him.  It was a good (or at least decent) show, but the pseudo-mysticism aspect of it never really worked for me.  A morally edifying show is fine at all, and as far as ethical systems or religious institutions go, "do good" is a fairly innocuous manifesto,  but the idea that you should do good because you'll be rewarded for it very soon--that bugged me.  It seemed to be a sort of sitcom logic, where everything needs to wrap up in 30 minutes, one way or the other, and "they all lived happily ever after because they're nice people" is a good a wrap up as any.

But there's another side to the temptation of such karma.  It's not just being rewarded for doing good--it means you've got certainty.  Life's full of choices, and it's not always clear if you've made the right one.  A system that rewards and punishes quickly is a nice source of feedback.  Case in point: I'm in line at the self-checkout.  It's a peak time and there's a bit of a wait, and so I spend every minute of it castigating the people in front of me for being so clearly poor with the self-checkout system.  I get up there, and, in my desire to show them how it's done, immediately screw up, keying in the wrong number and charging myself an extra 3 dollars.  Now, normally, I'd call a cashier over to cancel the item, but I've got a long line behind me yet, and there's only one cashier to manage the four tills, and she's already busy.  So, making a split decision, I take the hit.  I pay for my groceries, and I amscray.  And at the moment, I remember thinking, "This is karma.  You deserved to have this happen."  Well, yes and no.  I felt impatient, I keyed in items in a hurry, I screwed up, and I felt too embarrassed to fix my mistake.  That's only karma if karma is another word for cause and effect.  If I hadn't felt socially conditioned to refuse to hold up the people behind me any longer, I would have gotten my money back (or rather, never spent it at all).  Is that karma? And if the self-checkout system allowed cancellation, I could have avoided the whole thing.  Is that karma?

Karma.  An attempt to understand the way the world works when forces are beyond our control.  A justification for condemning someone for their misdeeds and bad consequences.  And a neat mcguffin for a Jason Lee vehicle.

Later Days.

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