Karma

In the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X said, “The chickens have come home to roost!”

Much of America was shocked and offended.

I had always liked Malcolm, but this seemed harsh.

A half century later, I now think, Malcolm was teaching Karma.

1.

Karma is Buddhism’s answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and the companion question, “How come some obviously terrible people continue to reap earthly benefits?”

Probably all religions offer an answer. It seems to be a basic human question.

Karma has helped me face my fears, connecting me to my demons. The demons are guides to the bad karma. These appear to me as life challenges which I haven’t wanted to face. 

Karma frees me from the question, Why is this happening to me? Although, sometimes the answer is obvious: the sink is overflowing because I left the water running. But often I don’t see the event which led to the frightening challenge of the moment. It all seems unfair. Karma relieves me of the burden of wondering why, frees me from the endless, unanswerable circle. The question now is simply, Do I face the challenge, or do I ignore it? Somehow. 

Karma works for me as a wonderful piece of paradoxical therapy. In the words of the Fram Oil Filter pitchman in the old TV commercials, “Pay me now or pay me later.”

The way the paradox works: When I realize that I don’t have to face the challenge in life that I want to avoid, that Karma allows me, like the Fram Oil Filter guys say, to postpone unpleasantness to another day, to the next lifetime or perhaps even farther in the future than that —realizing though, that the challenge will always be there, arising lifetime after lifetime until I settle this Karma — always waiting for me.

 I have found that almost always, pretty quickly, I am deciding that I might as well face the challenge now, get it over with rather than put if off to the future — this life or the next life or the life after that. It will always be hanging over me.

This has been wonderful teaching in my life. Facing fears, embracing demons has allowed me to move on and has alleviated the burden of worrying when the demon will re-appear.

You might ask, doesn’t this Karma stuff depend on a belief in reincarnation? Do you really believe all this reincarnation stuff? 

I don’t know. I am really an agnostic on this next life, past life stuff.

I smile. Eventually, I will find out.

Call it a myth if you like. This myth is wonderfully useful in my life. So I act as if it is true, although I have no certainty.

I smile. Faith is weird.

II

The sins of the fathers are visited on the children. 

I am speaking for those who have no voice, who are not heard, fueled by rage, transmitted from my father, rooted in the experience of anti-Semitism in his childhood. 

The stories of his having to fight every day on his way home from school. The story of his first love who he became so close to when they were together in the tuberculosis sanatorium, — I think it turned out that my father had been misdiagnosed, — who was not permitted by her family to see him once they were discharged. 

He was a fighter against injustice. Part of my Karma. Good Karma. Really, although I suffered as an outsider, sometimes more in my own mind than in the reality of my life, often enough there as well. Mostly good karma, although in my mind I am always the one at risk of being excluded. The demon of my insecurity.

My father was hugely ambivalent about success in business. He was a terrible businessman, a wonderful craftsman, and artist, a cabinet maker who designed and built beautiful custom furniture for very successful business people and artists. He formed very affectionate bonds with many of them, envied their successes while also passionately believing that economic injustice in America was intolerable. 

He directed his best energy to make America a better place, to end racial inequality and injustice. At the end of his life, he was admired for his steadfastness and his commitment.

 And he felt that he was a failure, that he had not really succeeded in business. 

My karma, too. A conflict difficult to reconcile. 

Paco helped me befriend this demon. He had a mantra, “Doing good and doing well,” helped to free me, helped me to heal that demon of choice, inherited from my father: Doing good or doing well. Well, not entirely free.

I’m wondering what demons I am leaving Jamie to wrestle with.

III

I remember saying, my family was still being chased around Ukraine by Cossacks when the Indian lands were taken; when African slaves were brought to America, and when slavery finally ended. My maternal grandparents arrived in New York City toward the end of the 19th Century. My paternal grandparents arrived in Canada around the same time, well after the end of the Civil War. 

What I was saying was that there was no blood on my hands. We were fleeing the pogroms.

Compassion, yes. But no guilt. Karma was not in my vocabulary then.

Being White in America was not easy for a lot of people. When last year, as Bernie Sanders’ presidential star was on the rise, when people were asking if America was ready for a socialist president, I was thinking, Forget that. Is America ready for a Jewish president?

I grew up as an outsider. Being Jewish was only part of the story. Growing up as a Jewish atheist was a double whammy. I tried to distance myself from my parents’ beliefs. But I was tainted. Jewish, atheist, socialist: too much to handle as a teenager in a Long Island suburb in the 1950s. I was always afraid of being outted.  At college in the Midwest, there really was anti-Semitism all around me. No doubt, I was an outsider. 

But prejudice and bigotry never seemed to close doors in my career. I was lucky perhaps. The social exclusion, the stigma was hurtful. The experience is still not fully digested. But somehow, for the most part, we, — the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, —  got into the club. Or at least some of the clubs. That even partial acceptance made a difference in our lives. 

I saw it clearly 50 years ago. I was working at the Brookdale Community Mental Health Center in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods. I had a friend and colleague and, for me, a rival. Sid was older than me and black. I was jealous. Although I had arrived at Brookdale before Sid, — we were both social workers, — Sid was advancing more quickly, getting promotions that I wanted.

It was a time when Brookdale was recognizing for the first time that it needed to relate to the Black community in a different way and definitely needed to present a more inclusive face. I was proud to be part of bringing that change about. This was something I believed in passionately.

At a time when my generation was embracing anti-imperialism, I was committed. US involvement in Viet Nam dominated our consciousness. We were horrified that our country was taking over the mantel of French imperialism in South East Asia after the French defeat at Dienbienphu.

Here I was working at a hospital with Jewish heritage (it had been Beth El until a few years earlier). I was doing community organizing and community relations work in a Community Mental Health Center, a federal intervention, a Kennedy legacy program. We were going to transform America. We believed that we could leverage the mental health initiative to end poverty in America.

I was, I would tell people, “a colonial administrator,” acknowledging the ambiguity of my position.

And still, I was jealous of Sid. “If I was black, I would be getting the promotions he was getting,” I told myself. I had what I thought were superior analytic and communication skills, and maybe even more passion for the cause.

It was then that I first saw the light. Of course, if I was black I wouldn’t have had the incredible educational advantages which I had and which were the source of those skills. I would just be a younger, less experienced Sid. 

That was my first real glimpse into white skin privilege.

Although my ancestors were being chased by Cossacks while white people in America were stealing native lands and enslaving Africans, although we had arrived after these episodes had become history, although we had faced barriers and still face barriers, we had somehow, more or less, been admitted to the club. 

I, we, enjoyed the privileges that are rooted in the theft of land and slavery, rooted in genocide, white skin privilege. 

So now it’s my karma too. It’s my demon. “Pay me now or pay me later,” says the Fram guy. Can we do this now? The chickens will keep coming home to roost.

  1. Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Luigi Bosoto, Gianfranco Cecchin, Giuliana Preta. Paradox and Counter-Paradox. A New Model in the Therapy of Family in Schizophrenic Transaction (Lenham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield). This was a very influential book. By the time, I got to and absorbed it, I and the team I was working with at South Beach Children and Youth Service were applying the insights to a very wide range of parent-child issues, which meant from the family therapy perspective, pretty much everything which was described as childhood or adolescent issue.