On Karma: Apparently I was a BASTARD in a former life. Otherwise why am I made to suffer this way?

JC summerford
5 min readSep 25, 2020

Some people skate through with easy money, stable relationships, a satisfying career, nice family. When the good Lord calls them, I assume they’ll just fade quietly away, smiling stonily in their caskets as their bodies tenderly slide into the grave. I envy those people, sometimes. Mostly not, I mean, we can only be who we are, we can only try to be better. But why should we bother? What’s in it for me, to be a good human being? Just proposing the question no doubt sets me a notch closer to rebirth as a skink.

If Karma is real, then the Universe is like a cosmic calculator grinding in the background, tallying up all of our good and bad deeds, our positives and negatives, and at some point, assuming we have not achieved Nirvana upon death, we are sent tumbling back down to Earth, chagrinned, to try again. We wake up a screaming baby, born into — well we can’t know what kind of family will be waiting for our bundle of karma-kolored joy, can we? Our new folks could be billionaires, prison inmates, baboons, cockroaches. According to Karmic Law, Donald Trump will be reborn as a deformed, mutant shark, ingesting radioactive spawn from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster while living his entire lifespan inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But I digress.

Back to the person who has lived a long, full, healthy life with no regrets and simply drifts off in his sleep surrounded by a loving family. Who cares? That’s not going to be me. It’s far too late for me to reverse or even slightly ameliorate all of the shitty things I’ve said and done. I certainly didn’t bother to record all of them, although they haunt my waking dreams. Ever had a waking dream? When out of the blue, some awful image hijacks your immediate consciousness, causing you to break focus on whatever it was you were doing, jerk involuntarily, and release a sharp, fearful gasp? It happens to me all of the time. Then the bad images shuttle through my cranium like a slideshow from hell, like a karmic laundry list, until I stop whatever I’m doing and sit quietly in meditation, waiting for the brain arrhythmia to subside.

Just mentioning this causes me to shudder at something I did years ago, when it seems like I must have been out of my mind, and I know that I would absolutely never ever make that same decision today. Do we out-grow carelessness, indifference, selfishness, meanness, temporary insanity? Do our misdeeds amount to personal lessons not to be repeated, and do our obsequious “never again” vows count for anything at all in Karmic terms? One thing’s for sure, we don’t forget our foibles, they torture our minds for eternity, or at least for as long as we exist. But is that punishment enough? How does Karma work, for real? Is it a tit-for-tat formula, like, we do one bad thing, then we do one equally good thing, and now our Karma is on even keel again, like replacing a dead battery in a car? Whose hands are at the scales? Can we pay that entity to mash a thumb on the conciliatory side? And even if we could, what currency is valid? I just know that being abjectly broke for years, and hurtling toward death now at warp speed, I don’t have nearly enough to save myself.

Some argue that if we are clearly, overwhelmingly bad, we go straight to hell. But what the hell is hell? What in heaven is heaven? Nobody’s ever written that best-seller, no physicist has ever postulated a formula for returning from the afterlife, because in fact nobody’s ever come back from that final event, at least not as the same physical being. Maybe people find out death is actually preferable to life, so they decide to stay dead. Those who come back from near-death spew weak stories about following a bright white light, or chatting up dead relatives. Maybe the real party’s at the end of that titillating tunnel.

I personally believe that hell, purgatory, and heaven are simply convenient concepts we employ in our incessant self-bargaining to be better. A few years ago I was knocked unconscious in a car accident, which is actually a good story published in a national magazine, but the part I didn’t tell was how at the moment I woke up bleeding to death on the back of that banana truck, I thought I had drifted to the Other Side and returned to Ecuador at the jolt of a farmer and his wife shoving me onto the raw planks of their flatbed. And the thing I took away from that experience was blackness. Nothingness. I have never forgotten my intense gratefulness for that weedy spark of life, blind from the blood pouring into my eyes, struggling for breath, wracked with chest pain from nine broken ribs, which later looked like a game of pic-up-sticks on the x-ray.

What are the definitions of “good” and “bad” anyway? What one person calls abortion, another calls murder. What one person calls imprisonment, another calls public safety. What one person calls abuse, another calls justified punishment. What one calls truth, another calls a lie. But it’s really not our call. Make no mistake, the Universe is a harsh task master. You’ll reap what you sow in the end, Karma be damned, so maybe just try to be as good to yourself and others as you can. And if you still suffer, don’t fancy yourself a victim, don’t be a flaming fucking narcissist. Watch cable news for five minutes and you’ll find millions of people who are much worse off than you, on top of those who don’t deserve half of what they have. I fully embrace Buddha’s basic precept that “Life is suffering”. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in Karma, whether or not you believe anything your religion tells you to believe, whether you’re an atheist, whether you live to a happy, ripe 101 years or commit suicide at 30. Are the 9–11 terrorists still dancing with virgins in the sky? I really can’t say, but I suspect we’re all in for the same treatment.