Unfulfilled Tyrants, Tasty Enchiladas, Happy Trash Pickers and the Secrets of Karma, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy the Hopelessness of Life....
By now, many of the counselors who read this blog--all one of you--probably see what I'm doing here. I'm adopting Viktor Frankl's approach of describing how my personal experiences contributed to my overarching theories. However, unlike Frankl, I obviously did not survive the Holocaust. I have, however, survived a normal, boringly typical life, and a lot of people--many of my clients, included--have had a difficult time coping with such a thing.
Frankl, of course, was one of the intrepid innovators of Existential Therapy. The main crux of the Existentialist approach is that clients are unhappy or struggling because they don't live "authentic," "meaningful" lives. So the Existentialist therapist wants to help people determine who they are, authentically, and what brings meaning to their lives, so that they can have more of that. All of which stems from the Existentialist philosophies of such old, dead, smug White dudes like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and Heidegger. Which, when boiled down to an irresponsible single sentence description, all these dudes were just trying to deal with how to live contently in a meaningless world where there is either no God, or God, at the very least, refuses to make Itself known to you in any sort of obviously helpful way.
Regardless, to understand what makes a life philosophy "true," ("authentic"?) let us begin with a common conversation I find myself in. For whatever reason, whether with friends, colleagues or clients, I very often find myself having discussions about the nature of Karma. Because if one's Karma is mostly good, one is probably adhering to a pretty "true" philosophy of life.
Now, I'm not necessarily talking about Karma the way we typically think about. I'm not talking about Karma as some magical score of good or bad deeds being kept in the deepest bowels of the Universe which then magically divvies out good fortune via the ether to those have high scores for their good deeds. And, also, far be it for me to act like I have any deep or profound understanding of Karma. I don't really know whether our Karma pursues us into new lives after we die. I don't know if Karma is that magic scoreboard in the sky. For all I know, on some level, Karma is all those things.
But Karma is also very immediate and concrete. And it's that level of Karma we really need to worry about for our purposes of establishing a "true" life philosophy. For example, if I walk in to work every morning and my co-worker in the cubicle next to me in the shin every single time, that co-worker is not going to be very likely to, say, help me move when I buy a new house. My Karma in that situation is that my co-worker is not going to want to help me do much of anything. Therefore, the life-philosophy of "going into work and kicking my co-worker in the shin every morning" is not a "true" life-philosophy, because the Karma it produced was shitty Karma.
Anyhow, the conversation I usually find myself in goes something like this:
Friend/Colleague/Client: There is no justice in the world. How come the shitheads never get what's coming to them? The rich get richer. The real crooks never get caught. The novels of Jonathan Lethem continue to win awards. The world is a mean, cruel, unjust place.
Me: (after several intensely anxious moments of trying to convince myself not to get into this conversation because it inevitably doesn't really lead anywhere) Right. You're talking about Karma.
Them: Yes. Karma doesn't exist. It's all a lie.
Me: Well, I don't really think that's true.
Them: Oh yeah? What about Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Etc.?
Me: What about them?
Them: Where was their Karma? Some of the evilest people in the history of the planet and they were rewarded with almost limitless power and fortune.
Me: So you think limitless power and fortune are automatically good and desirable things? That says more about you than it does about Karma.
Them: (getting defensive) I'm saying they were evil and still got exactly what they wanted.
Me: Let me paint a picture for you. Imagine you're Josef Stalin at the height of his reign. You are one of the most powerful people who ever lived. At your bidding you can command your minions to do anything you want. You can demand them to compose for you some beautiful poetry. Or to bring you a lotus flower. You can command them to build good schools and to provide good salaries to the teachers in those schools. You can build the greatest libraries the world has ever seen. You can use your power to build great and happy and functional communities.
What do you do, instead? You demand that they bring you 'dissenters' and you watch gleefully as someone tortures them in the most heinous, despicable, evil of manners, often for months at a time. And you watch idly as millions of your fellow countrymen die of disease and starvation.
Them: Yeah. What's your point?
Me: That seems like a miserable fucking life.
Them: No sir. Because Stalin was a sadist and he enjoyed watching people suffer.
Me: But it was never enough. No amount of suffering filled that hole in his heart. He could've burned the entire planet to a crisp, and he would've felt not one single tinge of satisfaction.
Me: Look, man, do you like enchiladas?
Them: Of course.
Me: Even though you like enchiladas, there comes a point where you eat enough and feel satisfied. Perhaps, if you eat enough, you even feel overly satisfied, no? Like you ate too much?
Me: Ok, well imagine that you enjoy enchiladas, but no matter many enchiladas you ate, no matter how full you felt after eating them, now matter how fat you got from all the enchiladas you ate, you still couldn't get enough enchiladas. You just kept eating and eating, and there was never any satisfaction. Even if you ate so many enchiladas that not one other single person on the planet could have one because you ate them all, and you still weren't happy?
That sounds like really terrible Karma to me.
Them: But he liked torturing people.
Me: mumbles curses to self about never trusting his instincts.
The point here being, of course, that Stalin's philosophy of life was whack, and so the Karma of that philosophy was whack. And that philosophy of life was so whack that its shitty-ass Karma permeated and infected the entire world.
Which is a big reason why we in the United States (and in the world at large) still struggle to get along with each other. When your entire society exists only because of its past genocide of the American Indian and its enslavement of various African peoples, that Karma is going to have repercussions for a long, long time. (You can understand a lot about a person's basic understanding of the world and of morality if they say something like, "slavery ended more than a century ago, shouldn't they get over it, already?" When some of us cease to unfairly benefit from the Karma of the past, those who continue to not be benefited by it might be in a place to "get over it." The founding philosophy of the United States of America was not "True" and its collective Karma continues to reflect that.)
But we're not talking about that big kind of Karma, which is, admittedly, much more difficult to understand and solve. We're talking about individual Karma. And individual Karma is much easier to think about and conceptualize.
Here's a simply test you can give yourself to determine what your current Karma might be:
Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 regarding how happy and/or content you feel at the moment, where "1" represents a point of unhappiness/discontent so severe you're probably going to attempt to kill yourself at any moment and "10" is so happy/content you still might commit suicide but only because you've had the realization that there's no way the rest of your life can compare to this moment and it's all down hill from here. (Remember: All life is suffering...or whatever...so even our good moments can't be too good.) And, of course, there are various levels of happiness/contentment, or the lack thereof, in between.
Now, I would say that if you're scoring higher than a five, in all likelihood your Karma is pretty decent and whatever philosophy of life you're adhering to is relatively "true." That, or you've recently come into some weird luck that may or may not be directly related to the Karma of your philosophy of life.
If your score is below a five, then the likelihood is either you have had some bad luck or your Karma is shit because your philosophy is shit.
My mentioning "luck" is not by mistake here. And what I mean by luck is one's circumstances. Maybe my philosophy of living is good and so my Karma is good, but that doesn't stop, say, relatives from dying. And if, like, my mother died yesterday, no matter how good my philosophy and corresponding Karma are, I'm probably going to be in a rough mood for a little while.
So, yeah, circumstances do play a role. None of us, that I know of, are born in circumstances of our choosing. Nobody got to choose whether we were born to capable or healthy parents or not. None of us got to choose how much money the people who raised us made. Or what kind of communities we grew up in. Or what kind of talents we were born with.
Which circumstances, of course, all have an effect on our own feelings of satisfaction about our lives.
What I'm going to propose is that those circumstances don't really have as much of an affect on our well-being as we often think.
I'm proposing as much not because I know for a stone-cold fact that it's true. I'm proposing it because it is, as far as I can see with my barely-functioning eyes, the only way to get through life without going mad, or being utterly unhappy, or becoming an asshole.
So, regardless of whether circumstances out of our control have an appreciable effect on our moods or not, they're out of our control. And the only thing within our control is our own choices. Our choices of behavior and our choices of how we perceived the world.
Many therapists believe that our thoughts themselves are a choice, and we can choose what we think. The entire therapeutic approach of schools like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy center around this idea. But I won't go that far. I know for a fact many of my thoughts are wrong and useless and often times downright destructive. But do I choose to have them? Not usually. What I can choose is my thoughts about the thoughts themselves.
And, this, I think, is life-- recognizing what choices I'm making and determining whether they're the ones I should be making or not.
This is also why so many people get the wrong idea about Existentialism. They seem to think that Existentialism leads directly to Nihilism. Because at the end of the day, nothing matters, right? If Karma doesn't exist, or if God doesn't exist, and cosmic justice doesn't exist and the bad get through life unharmed and all the good do is suffer, then nothing matters.
But the key to understanding Existentialism is understanding Karma, and understanding that the truth of the matter is the complete and utter opposite--that EVERYTHING matters. And that's the truly scary thing. Everything I choose to do or believe in has repercussions that affect not only me, but certainly everyone in my vicinity and, perhaps, just like Stalin, everyone in the entire world.
Therefore I can't just go along and assume things. I can't just accept the common perception of things.
For example: I was watching one of Anthony Bourdain's shows several years back--you know the ones, those traveling food shows. And he was down in Nicaragua and he visited a huge junkyard where an entire community of people were foraging for food and scavenging for tossed-away goods that they could sell to get some food. These people lived in little shanty-towns and didn't own anything much but the collapsing aluminum roofs over their heads. The entire segment was portrayed as sad and gloomy and hopeless--a reminder of the forgotten people of the world who eat rotten, leftover trash-cake while the rest of us eat our enchiladas. At one point, Bourdain, staring morosely at the foragers states somberly, "This is fucked up man."
But I had an inkling. I had a hunch that the people whose entire livelihood consisted of digging through a mound of trash as large as a small town were probably no less happy than your average American.
And, after consulting with old pal Google for a few minutes, I found out I was right.
In this article, it is found that at least half of the Nicaraguan trash pickers are "very" happy.
Meanwhile, in less than five years, Bourdain himself would be dead of suicide.
Which is not meant to be a cheap shot at Bourdain, at all. And my argument here is not meant to defend the existence of that kind of poverty, either. Certainly I would not trade my worst day on this planet for two hours in that garbage pile.
What all of this is, however, is an admittance that we know jack shit about "happiness." The things we think will make us happy rarely do, and that's because we somehow have come to believe that it is our circumstances that make us happy or not, not the way we choose to behave within those circumstances or the way we choose to look at those circumstances.
Because one of the big, major, Capital-S Secrets about life is that we are all--each and every single one of us--literally creating the Universe at every single moment. We are basically gods, and we're completely and utterly aware of it.
And that will be the topic of our next post.
But, in the meantime, it might be helpful to keep in mind the assertion that it is not our circumstances--whether we are rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, talented or dull--that is making us happy or unhappy. It is what we choose to do within those circumstances that are. And I invite anyone to prove me wrong on this.