The Law of Karma
“Everyone over forty is responsible for their own face.
If we smile a lot, we have smile lines.
If we frown a lot, we have frown lines.”
It is a sultry afternoon; the air is as hot as the local curry sauce, and the land as parched as the lips of a thirsty camel. There is no moisture anywhere; it must have evaporated along with any motivation on my part. All I feel like doing is doing nothing at all, so I am idling in a patch of shade on the terrace, waiting for a breeze to appear. It’s wishful thinking. A gust of wind is as likely to come along as the popsicle man driving his musical truck. The others are reclining on bunks in their rooms in a general show of lassitude; no one in India goes out in mid afternoon.
In the distance I can see a reluctant windmill, spinning languidly, assuming the attitude a young boy tasked with some unpleasant chore. The street is quiet but for a single bullock, not looking very god-like, strolling aimlessly down the center lane. A few unfortunate fieldworkers are tending their crops, while most people have sought shelter from the unrelenting sun.
This morning dawn traced a pink line over the horizon and I watched an egg-yolk sun rise over a parched scrubland. The terrain here is flat as a thin crust pizza, but in the distance there is an earthen escarpment that was the destination for my morning run. When I reached it, I climbed to the top and traversed its spine until I could go no further. I could see for miles. Below me, there were people walking and pushing bicycles laden with goods to be sold at market. The townspeople see few westerners here. To them, I didn’t belong and they weren’t sure what to do with me. I could feel them watching me when we passed on the dusty road, yet they wouldn’t engage. If we made eye contact at all, they looked away, as if I had caught them eavesdropping. One man returned my smile, an older gentleman. He was dressed in traditional dhoti pants and had eyebrows like caterpillars. He sported a mustache that would put the actor Sam Eliot to shame.
I came across a group of schoolchildren sitting on the ground outside their classroom, eating breakfast. Their teacher stacked peas and other vegetables onto piles of rice in their wooden bowls. Everyone ate with their fingers, tipping the bowl to get the last few morsels into their mouths. I had met this teacher before. She was young and friendlier than most of the women, who won’t talk to a man they don’t know if they are by themselves. She must have been Brahmin; she was well dressed in a green sari, golden chandeliers hanging from her earlobes and bangles on her wrists. I sat down on the ground with the children and took some pictures. They offered me a bowl of their food, and I ate it, throwing caution to the wind. More than once when in Asia and Africa my stomach has paid the price for eating street food.
This is the dry season in one of those places where the rhythm of the seasons is determined not by warm and cold, but by wet or dry. The weather patterns are binary, divided into either one extreme or another, with no in-between. It’s as if a day consisted of only midnight or high noon, with no dawn or dusk. During monsoon, the rain is torrential and incessant. The deluge arrives abruptly, but after a few months it stops as suddenly as it began. What follows is a drought that lasts longer than anyone could have wished for during the wet season. Like some houseguests, the monsoon outstays its welcome yet is missed once it has gone. The people anxiously anticipate its return, like a sailor’s wife does as she stands on shore, waiting for a ship to reappear on the horizon.
If you live in rural India, water stays on your mind; there is always either a flood or a drought in progress. Water is vital to the planet, like breath is to a human being, but too much oxygen is toxic, and too much water is as much of a problem as too little (as we have seen in opposite parts of our country this year).
Humans will go to great lengths to get the water they need, and I see that here. It’s a long way to the well and back every day for some villagers.
Still, it could be worse. The driest place on earth is the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, yet indigenous people have managed to live there. They know there is moisture in the sea mist that drifts ashore from the coast, so they weave and erect large nets and place them on the arid hillsides. When the fog touches the tall nets, it forms drops of moisture. The water rolls down along the plastic strands and moves through small gutters, collecting at the bottom of the net, where the trickle is funneled into a pipe that leads to a cistern.
Too much or too little. Seems like there are two sides to water.
I am in Jamkhed, a small town in the countryside of south-central India. I was invited to come here with a small group of career missionaries. I’m not one of them (career missionary), so I’m not sure why they asked me, but they did, and here I am.
In 1970 doctors Mabelle Arole and Rajanikant Arole were asked to come to this small town in one of the poorest parts of India to provide health care to the people of Jamkhed and the surrounding villages. In doing so they created the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), which treats illness and also has served as a catalyst for social change. Poor, low caste women have been provided a basic education about proper public health practice, and with that knowledge, they have become community leaders. The process of improving the health of the residents has transformed the social fabric of the entire community. The Methodist Church Board of Global Ministries is trying to learn about this program and how to create something similar for its mission projects in Africa.
The Aroles are local celebrities, but not in a rock star sort of way. They are revered for their kindness and wisdom, yet they don’t inspire the kind of excitement that we might have felt if we had seen Elvis Presley in the flesh. Instead, it is more like how we would feel if we got to meet Mr. Rogers. When we walk though a village, many people recognize Raj, and they pause to greet and acknowledge us. Most just smile and watch from a distance, and a few approach to kneel in front of him and touch his feet, the ultimate gesture of respect.
One night, at dusk, I walked with Raj through a crowd of revelers who had gathered for a college graduation ceremony in a nearby town. Raj was invited to attend ,and he asked Charles, a church official, and me to come along.
We exited our vehicle and walked into a grassy clearing encircled by the silhouettes of tall trees against a dimming sky. The leafy branches of a huge Peepal tree cradled a rising, torchlight moon. The meadow was thick with families dressed up for the occasion, the women in colorful saris or pajama-like salwar kameez. Loudspeakers blared a playlist of traditional sitar selections mixed with Bollywood favorites that beckoned us to dance along with the teenagers, frolicking to the infectious beat of the music. Cookfires filled the air with the aroma of curry and the sweet, earthy smell of saffron, and vendors strolled around selling samosas as if they were boxes of Cracker Jacks.
We were led past the chairs that were set up for the audience, escorted up onto the stage, and invited to sit cross-legged on king-size pillows that were so enormous and squishy that they threatened to swallow us whole. The pillows were a patchwork of vibrant shades of red, blue, and gold and the entire stage was enveloped by a backdrop of garish colored tapestries. Garlands of marigolds were draped over everything, even the microphone in center stage. Spotlights were directed into our faces, so we couldn’t see the gathering assemblage, but we heard the chattering of anticipation as the formalities began.
It started with singing, then a dance performance by students wearing traditional costumes, followed by a long speech that we couldn’t understand. Next, a parade of students marched across the stage to receive diplomas from the school president until he unexpectedly asked Raj to come up and hand out the certificates. Then Raj coaxed Charles to take over, and then, before I knew what was happening, it was me congratulating the graduates and presenting them with college diplomas.
At the time, it seemed like a very peculiar situation, and still does. I could see why they asked Raj to be there—he was like their favorite uncle—but I was a complete stranger, appearing out of nowhere to participate in one of the most important occasions of their lives. I was like the Forrest Gump of India.
From Absurdity to Astonishment
That night in India was so bizarre and long ago that it’s like I traveled there only in my imagination. It’s all written down in my journals but still seems, in a word, absurd.
The philosophers known as Existentialists proposed that absurdity is an intrinsic part of the world. They argued that there is irrationality built into everything.
In everything? That sounds extreme, but I get their point. Doesn’t everyone, at one time or another, sense that life is a riddle that is not quite solvable? We all have our moments—the crazy situations that don’t make sense, yet stand out in our memories. Then consider the more ordinary and commonplace events of daily life. Based on appearances alone, they also can seem pretty weird. Imagine someone who, for some reason, has no knowledge or interest in something that humans do instinctively and without contemplation— like eating, talking on a telephone, or having sex—and try to explain how to do that (or why). They would be like, “You want me to do what?!” Unless you’re actually doing it, from the outside it can look pretty absurd.
I have been thinking about this because, to me, there have been a lot of absurd things happening lately. If this past year of strange and disturbing events was a movie, the screenplay might have been co-written by Edgar Allan Poe and Monty Python, both sinister and ridiculous at the same time.
Jean-Paul Sarte, and others before him, said that we are “thrown” into this world, forced to perform roles for which we never auditioned, tasked with the project of creating ourselves. The “thrownness” is in arriving in a world we did not ask for and the absurdity is in our seeking meaning or purpose in situations where there is none and from being faced with a dizzying array of decisions to make without really understanding what’s going on. Albert Camus thought that part of the human condition is our intuitive awareness of the absurdity of life, and to illustrate his point, he used the Greek myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a heavy bolder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again and have to start all over.
These past two years have made each of us into a Sisyphus, laboring away, thinking things are better, until they are not.
We can’t change most of the external events that unsettle us; that kind of control is as impossible as trying to smoke a cigar and play the trumpet at the same time. All we can do is focus on what is up to us and accept the things that are not, while holding that the good and bad in life are not entirely dependent on the external circumstances we have been thrown into but rather on how we react to them. Camus said we can imagine Sisyphus as happy, and that in the face of absurdity, we create meaning in life by living it.
It is not just about the song. It is that the song is being sung.
“There are only two ways of living your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein
“If the stars came out only once a century, humans would stay up all night long marveling at their beauty.” Immanuel Kant
How we see the world depends radically on our state of mind. That is easy for me to say, since I’m not in a COVID ward, or a refugee camp, or an unemployment line. But anyone can try to see the world as amazing rather than absurd, and doing that can be an antidote to despair.
Sure, the world is absurd, but that’s not all it is. That night in India was both weird and wonderful.
“Awesome” is an overworked word these days (by teenagers and generals alike) and some of the things people describe as awesome really aren’t so much. On the other hand, it is good to be awestruck, and we can be open to astonishment. I was on a road trip recently, and I came across what is now my favorite roadside placard. It was on a turnout overlooking a vast expanse of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California. The sign said to look out at the scenery and “let it fill your eye and mind.” It said that previous travelers have searched for adequate descriptive words—“spectacular,” “breathtaking,” “immense.” Then it challenged the reader by saying, “Why not form your own description?” The park ranger who wrote that must have really liked his job. I think he was a little awestruck himself.
Mary Oliver wrote poems about the forests and shorelines of Cape Cod and was able to capture the intrinsic magic in a tree, or a bird, or in a wave.
She described herself as “a bride married to amazement” and believed that we can hold in wonder even the things to which we have grown accustomed. It’s like the flip side of seeing absurdity in everything. We can be astonished that a bird can sing, that a giraffe can be shaped that way, or that the Milky Way exists. I can be amazed at the dahlias in my garden blooming again after spending the winter as dried up, seemingly inert, clumps; I can be called to the hospital in the middle of a moonless night and look up at a sky so dark I could count every star if I had enough time; I can marvel at the fact that I woke up this morning, because there are many who did not; and there is nothing more astonishing than watching my children being born or grandchildren growing up.
I am becoming more aware and astonished of how quickly life goes by and how soon it will be over. Whether the world is absurd or astonishing to us, if we are always looking for logical sense, we are missing the point. The earth will always have many mysteries; we don’t need to solve them all.
Despite recent evidence to the contrary, there is much here that is good and this curious ride we call life does not require an explanation, just occupants.
“Haste makes waste”
“ A rolling stone gathers no moss”
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”
“Home is where the heart is.”
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
“Don’t cross that bridge till you come to it”
“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
It seems that two viewpoints can appear incompatible, but actually are not. They both can be valid.
Complementarity is the concept that one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have different, even contradictory, properties but is still the one thing. (like water, from earlier).
The most fundamental examples of complementarity come from the realm of quantum physics, which attempts to describe the most elemental aspects of reality. Is light a particle or a wave? Turns out, it’s both, depending on how you look at it.
That question was an area of intense debate among the theoretical physicists of the last century as they worked out the equations and models of quantum theory. A famous and intense argument took place between Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein about what we can know, and what we cannot, when it comes to how things work at the subatomic level. The two of them were good friends, but did not agree on the basic idea of whether or not the world is deterministic. Einstein thought that it is —things are either one way or another—and that what we do not understand we just have not figured out yet, but will someday. Bohr thought that reality, at least on the subatomic level, is not deterministic and consists of probabilities, not certainties. Einstein famously said that, “God does not play dice with the universe!” After hearing that one too many times, Bohr quipped, “Albert, stop telling God what to do!”
“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” Neils Bohr
One thing we know is that the world is wrapped in dualities. It can seem both simple and complex, organized and chaotic, understandable and mysterious. And yet, what appears to be a duality can, in actuality, be two things being true at once. Facts don’t always falsify other facts, they might just represent different ways of processing reality.
Take music, for example. We don’t ask which is the truth about music, the melody or the harmony. Each is a meaningful aspect of music, but we can’t sing both at once, and it’s not like one is better, or more musical, than the other. There is really only the one song.
We experience a pandemic by separating ourselves from each other, yet we still crave and seek relationship and care for each other by keeping our distance. We smile with our eyes, not our mouths, and show affection without touching each other. The COVID pandemic is not one thing; it’s both isolation and interaction, sequestration and connection, solitude and community.
People can also be viewed as a blend of opposites. We, too, contain dualities. Humans are enormous in relation to the individual cells of our bodies or the viruses that inhabit them, yet tiny compared to a mountain or an ocean, the planet, or the universe. We are like a Cubist figure portrait that portrays different perceptions simultaneously, one on top of another.
It is clear that we are not all of the same opinion—on some things not even the same species. I have opinions, too, and, of course, I think I am right about some of them. Maybe I am, but it doesn’t mean that the others are completely wrong. And anymore it’s not about being right or wrong, anyway, but about what group we want to belong to.
I do know what doesn’t work. That is to point out to someone that they are wrong, to argue with them, or try to convince them to change. All we can change is ourselves. If we try to understand and acknowledge different ways of thinking, it doesn’t mean we have to agree or adopt them, but it might help us to get along and not be as angry.
This idea of Complementarity, when I can summon it, helps me to recenter myself and find hope that things aren’t as absurd as they seem
It’s that we need each other that gives life meaning, and the world could use a little love right now. We all can agree on that.
“What matters therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a persons life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion ” Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of ones opponent. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver https://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=477
“Complementarity is an invitation to consider different perspectives. It can be a tool for smoothing out our current public discourse.” Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilzeck
“Keep in mind that opinion is one of the lowest forms of human knowledge, …..empathy the highest.” Bill Bullard