Doug Shear on the danger of putting too much emotional stake into the consequences of karma.
I saved another person from drowning the other day, at South Beach.
The lifeguard was furious. He came splashing into the water and screamed at me: You’re not qualified to rescue someone who’s drowning! Wave your hands so I can see you, you idiot!
Then he stomped out of the water and climbed back up on his lifeguard throne.
He’s right, I’m not qualified. It took me a long time to realize the plump Indian girl with the terrified eyes truly needed help. She was frantically dogpaddling against the current, but the guy she was with didn’t seem to care. He just stared at her, like maybe it was her Karma to get dragged out to sea.
“Does she need help?” I asked him. He nodded yes, but I still wasn’t convinced. After all, a man can’t just grab a woman in the ocean without her permission, even if she is drowning.
So I waited for her head to bob back up and hollered, “Do you need help?” She nodded yes before going under again.
So I swam/walked a few feet, took her hands, and swam/pulled her back a few feet. It was silly, not heroic. She joined her friend and the two of them slogged their way to the shore without a word of gratitude.
That’s when the lifeguard ran into the water and screamed at me.
That’s not how Karma is supposed to work.
But the first time I saved someone from drowning it was worse. I ended up calling Animal Control.
It started when I left work early to meditate in my backyard, next to a mucky canal. Almost immediately I hear some kid screaming, “Help, my brother’s drowning! Help!” and a dog barking nonstop. So I rush over and peer down the embankment at some scrawny kid, tangled in the octopus arms of the algae encrusted weeds that choke the canal every summer, slapping his arms like a wounded pelican.
It only took a moment for me and the scrawny kid’s bother to make a human chain and pull him out. I didn’t even get wet. But before I could bask in my good deed, their dog, an ill kempt Doberman, rose up on its hind legs and raked my chest with its claws, tearing the skin through my shirt.
I immediately became enraged, at the dog, at the boys, at the Universe itself for rewarding my almost heroic actions with a metaphorical slap in the face.
The Doberman lunged at me again, snapping at my hands and legs.
“Call your dog!” I shouted at the boys.
“He don’t mind us,” said the scrawny kid whose life I had just saved.
“He ain’t a good dog,” said his brother.
It continued to bark and snap at me, so I defended myself in the only way I could, by screeching at the top of my lungs and flailing my arms like a mental patient. This display of insanity seemed to confound the raging beast and keep it at bay.
Thusly I backed into the safety of my townhouse, all the way to the front door, just so my neighbors could witness the barking dog and the babbling, spastic man.
Safe inside, I tried to meditate again, to calm my nerves and spirit from such a vicious attack. But I was too pissed off at the Universal Oneness to quiet my mind. Karma is not supposed to work this way. I should have tripped over a hundred dollar bill, not gotten bit by a dog. I got gypped.
Plus I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I might get rabies, which meant either a series of painful shots to the stomach with oversized needles, or become foaming at the mouth crazy. That wasn’t a choice I wanted to make. So I got my six foot long karate Bo and went to have a word with the boys, or their parents, whom I had never seen. As far as I knew they were feral kids, raised by wild Dobermans.
I banged their door with the Bo. The kids opened it.
“He ain’t here,” they said, as if I had come to beat up their dog.
“When’s the last time he got a rabies shot?” I asked. They had no idea.
“He ain’t our dawg.”
“He just hangs out with us.”
“I’ll have to call animal control,” I told them. “If he has rabies, I could die.” They just shrugged. Fine. We’ll see how blasé they are when Animal Control shows up and takes their dog away.
So I called Animal Control. I told them to send an emergency dogcatcher to trap the beast so they could quarantine it and test it for rabies. I thought the Miami Herald might call. Instead, an amused young man told me, “don’t worry, it probably isn’t rabid. But be sure to call us if you’re bitten by a raccoon.”
Then he threw me a bone. If I see the dog around the neighborhood, he told me, I could lure him into my car and bring him to their office. Then they would be happy to test him for rabies, or any other diseases I had in mind.
I told him I was outraged. Wasn’t he concerned that there might be a rabid dog attacking children and pregnant mothers?
He was not concerned. He informed me that Animal Control had not seen a case of dog-borne rabies in years, and that the dog was probably just a little upset. He suggested I give it a couple of dog biscuits to help calm it down.
“Sure, and I’ll give it a nice, soothing bath and a head to toe massage,” I told him. “Clearly the dog’s emotional well-being is more important to you than my survival.”
He didn’t appreciate my sarcasm and hung up.
The next day the scrawny kid showed up at my door, head hung low, eyes on his bare feet.
“Thank you for saving my life, Mister,” he mumbled, like an apology.
And suddenly I felt responsible for everything he would do in his lifetime, for all the good and bad that a man does. I felt the need to set him on the right path. To offer some nugget of wisdom that would change his destiny forever.
“Just don’t grow up to be an asshole,” I told him.
He met my eyes and nodded. I think he got it.
That was the last I ever saw of them. The family left, but the Doberman hung around for a while. It would show in my backyard, by the canal, looking all scrawny and diseased. We both kept a wary eye, but left each other alone. I expect in its next life it will be reincarnated as a human being, perhaps as a man who gets attacked by an upset dog.
But I’m as confused as ever. Is it true that what goes around comes around? Or is it true that no good deed goes unpunished? Is there a loophole in the Law of Karma?
I don’t have the answer. But in the future, if I ever come across someone drowning, in a canal, in the ocean, perhaps in their own troubles, I’ll still try to help. Because I know what it’s like to be under water, under attack, and wish that somebody, anybody, qualified or not, would offer a helping hand.
Hilarious piece. I particularly like the part about telling the child not to grow up to be an asshole. I wish I could have had such nuggets of wisdom from my own alcoholic and neglectful father.
Maybe I’m a cynic but perhaps your good deeds are not so much actions that deserve to be rewarded but you paying back the universe for some on the unsavory things you've done in your life. We all like to believe that when we do something good or heroic, the universe should instantly return the favor in some grand gesture. However, it might just be the universe getting its due for the time we cut off that old lady on the freeway or laughed at someone's ugly child. Just a little food for thought.
Becca Faith says
Great post! It is often seductive to buy into the "karma is a boomerang" idea, particularly when we do good stuff and obviously deserve to win the lottery. But the fruition of past karma can come at any time and is never negated by virtuous acts in the present. Maybe all of your life-saving interventions will manifest in a future birth when you desperately need saving (or really NEED to trip over a hundred-dollar bill). For now, I would be grateful that the manifestations of past not-as-awesome-as-saving-a-life actions have come & gone with relative ease (and by relative ease, i mean "not rabies").
I really enjoyed reading your post, thanks for writing it. I agree with G. I also offer that, perhaps the reactions from the irate lifeguard, ungrateful couple and "blase'" attitude from the kids you helped, were additional gifts that universe had to offer you. I don't think we should go around doing good deeds with the expectation that we will have good karma circle back to us. We should do good deeds because they come from a place of love and the desire to help, without wanting anything in return.
Regarding the Doberman…I'm sorry he attacked you, that sounds horrifying. However, I find it curious that he hung around. Perhaps you were meant to help that dog in another way…especially if it was sickly and scrawny…animals have many, many gifts for us, even if that doesn't appear to be the case. Maybe it was the dog who also needed rescuing. No animal (or human) should live on this earth and suffer.
Lissa Boles says
Hysterically good post – thanks!
I remember the first time I heard Gandhi's explanation of Karma (paraphrased then and paraphrased now), told to me by a dear friend who's a devout Buddhist on her way to becoming a nun, from the looks of things…
The story goes that Gandhi attained life-changing insight on the nature of Karma when he was warned by the South African authorities that they would break his arm if he burned his papers during a peaceful protest (the papers identified he and fellow Indians as 2nd class citizens).
As he felt the fearful response of possible retaliation arise, and realized the inclination to capitulate under duress would be ultimately a denial of his innate freedom, it came to him that if his arm was broken it would be the result of past Karma ripening, not a result of current karmic pay-back /boomerang. That, in effect, the idea of 'psyche!' or Karmic gyp is a false one (tho it sure as hell doesn't feel like it!).
Apparently, this understanding on the nature of Karmic ripening made it possible for him to become who he was to become, the leader of an long oppressed people into independence and the last century's first best example of effective non-violent resistance.
Sorta turns everything on its head, this: if you take this, not only is what just happened not a direct causal result of what happened the moment before, but it means I simply can't blame a living soul. It puts a quick, clean and decisive kaput to victim-mindedness.
In behavior analysis there is a term, "behavior stream". It means that no behavior happens independently-all sorts of behavior and environmental stimuli are constantly flowing past and mixing with each other. I think Karma is like that… a Karma stream.
So, if you save a woman from drowning, you're building Karma, but if you get yelled at by a lifeguard, that isn't part of that same karma stream. Maybe that's HIS Karma stream… maybe it doesn't have anything to do with you and you got caught in the current.
Besides, I don't think karma is always "out there". It's mostly "In here". Your Karma might not be a winning lottery ticket. It might be an improved ability to deal with assholes so that the next asshole doesn't bother you as much.
that´s why i learn to swim…. only God and my cushion knows my karma:)
Teresa Graham says
that "display of insanity" works in back alleys on city streets when encountering raging human strays, too. thanks for the giggles
You do not do what is right expecting anything back from the Universe. Remove your own needs from the equation because Karma does not follow the wants of the self.