Karma = Story Arc

One of my best friends lost a son last year. His partner lost a beloved ex-partner the year before. Both are what I consider enlightened beings, with past career experience in education, counseling, and personal growth, now running a successful company. Why them?

My first thought is, they were ready for the next challenge.

It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at dealing with the shadow side of life and reaching to light on the other side; life will continue to throw stuff at you to deal with—a more advanced level of the game than you have yet tackled.

Grief is not a game, but the outcome is the same, no matter your final score: Game over… Play another?

In the end we all face physical suffering and decay. Which is why the principal practice of Tibetan Buddhism is: Meditate on death.

When I asked a Tibetan rinpoche once how he dealt with the experience of his people—persecuted, tortured, killed and driven into exile—he said simply: “It was their karma.”

Again, the question arises, how did these devout monks, and an entire culture based on the teachings of their religion, deserve the karmic fate that befell them? Was it simply the ultimate challenge they had to face, since they had overcome all lesser obstacles to spiritual wisdom, and there was nothing left to learn but the worst that life could dish out?

Or do we go further and inquire of each victim’s history, perhaps even their previous lifetimes, for clues to piece together so we can make sense of the otherwise random penalties of fate?

The 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey comes to mind, where a Catholic friar puzzles his way through the biographies of five people who fell to their deaths when an old Inca footbridge collapsed. The book’s author, Thornton Wilder, speaks of his own arguments with his Calvinist father who believed in God “as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit,” and dispenses justice accordingly. Wilder rejects this thesis in favor of a “more all-encompassing” divine principle, but admits that his book leaves the question unanswered.

It seems, whether in our private grief or our collective suffering, we wail, like Job of the Old Testament, “Why me?” Then we take solace in a theory explaining our pain. For Job,  an all-powerful, paternalistic God lies beyond mere justice;  inscrutable in his surpassing wisdom, yet deserving of our faith. This frame was challenged in modern Judaism in the face of the Holocaust, as some theologians abandoned the premise that God could be “meaningfully justified.”

It seems we puny earthlings are left with three choices, in making sense of our suffering: 1) to take a biographical approach, over several lifetimes if necessary, and call it karma; 2) to accept fate as divinely ordained, beyond our understanding of justice, and call it God; 3) to abandon all pretense of meaning or agency, and accept the outcome of our life in an existential void, without the need for any frame of meaning.

The problem of the latter approach is that our story ends without a punch line. We live and perish in an uncaring universe without purpose or reason. Ours is a rambling story with no development, no denouement, no satisfying conclusion…

Postmodern, you might say; what’s wrong with that? The ambiguous ending leaves the central story arc dangling, its final question unanswered like the one (“To be or not to be”) that obsessed a brooding Hamlet.

When we seek some greater comfort in our understanding, we make up a story to select and interpret events and traits so that in the end it makes sense. We crave an aesthetic sense of wholeness, of circularity, where all the disparate elements within the circle cohere, are viewed or heard in harmony. There are no loose ends, no dangling plot lines or arbitrary interventions. Plot development is natural, flowing from the given characteristics of each actor.

Karma is understood as the playing out of a life, through willed choices, each one engendering a future event in the looping chain of cause and effect. Effect, or fate, invites a response which then becomes a new cause of future effects. At least, that is how the storyteller constructs the character arc, because that is how we prefer to understand how life works.

Which doesn’t make our manufactured story of “karma” (for ourselves or others) true, in any absolute sense. It’s just the best we can do, as artists of life, to view our work at a glance, in a manageable frame.

The question remains: Do the untimely deaths of my friends, or the rape of an entire nation, make any real sense in the story of a life, or in a historical frame?

It is up to us to select, interpret and render such sense—or the lack of it—in a conclusion we can believe in: That’s how it happened. And I guess that’s why.

For the mind, the spirit to be at ease… that is the benefit, the “consolation of philosophy.” Whether of a settled faith, or of a more postmodern bent, “we can only,” as Wilder suggests, “pose the question correctly and clearly.”

In the end, perhaps we can even accept the story of our life just as it is—without the clothing of an interpretation. There is no formula, no predetermined arc it must follow. The conclusion it finds is its own; the frame, of its own making.

Leave a Reply