Karma police, arrest this man.

‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello

A couple of weeks ago, a student of mine somewhat unprompted asked if I believed in karma. I’d never really thought about it before very much, and made for a welcome break of him asking if I’d heard Fabri Fibra’s new song. 

It got me thinking though, and while he was working through exercises, I stared out of his window at the sea and thought it over some to give him an answer more satisfying than “I don’t know”.

At the end, I arrived at a no. Karma, if we consider it to be a mystical system of creating a form of balance in the universe, would need to, at least in my eyes, have a governing body: a divine figure or figures who would decide how, where and when to mete out justice or parity. The belief in this would be a step away from believing in a God, which I don’t, or at least don’t think, I believe in. We can never be sure, as we are infinitesimally insignificant to everything except ourselves. There may well be some kind of energy in the universe that could be described as godlike, but to portray it as the smiling white man that used to be on my granny’s calendars is simply us grasping for meaning in something which we can’t possibly understand and hedging it in a familiar form. If there is such an energy, for us to try to comprehend it would be like trying to explain the internet to a dog.

So, I don’t see how karma could exist as a universal equaliser. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to people who haven’t had time to be bad, for example the two babies on the GermanWings flight, or the child migrants who die in the Mediterranean.

People can find respite in the idea that when they take a knock, good times may just be around the corner. Equally, that people who wrong us will get their comeuppance. This idea, as I’ve already said, doesn’t make much sense if we actually think about it. It does, however, help us to avoid the realisation that we are, as previously noted, insignificant dots living on a chaotic rock in a constantly expanding universe whose size boggles the mind.

Is there an animal karma? If there were a karmic system for humans, presumably there would also be one for animals too. If you just snorted and think that’s ridiculous, surely that would be an indication of our arrogance; that we consider ourselves the master species, and therefore karma could only apply to us. We’re superior to dogs because we have opposable thumbs. We can keep all manner of animals in zoos to satisfy our curiosity. We’re trying to keep pandas alive, even though, millennia ago, they wandered into a cul-de-sac of doom when they were instead looking for bamboo and not having much sex. This must mean we bested them all in the evolutionary olympics. But dogs have a much stronger sense of smell and hearing than us, bats see through sound (try navigating around an unfamiliar room at night with the lights off), and arctic squirrels brains’ lose synapses when they hibernate only to see them grow back in the spring. We’re bullies in charting our achievements - measuring ourselves against others using the scale that suits us.

Even in the last two hundred years or so we’ve changed physically. Since 1850, the average Dutch male has increased by twenty centimetres, while the average American only by 6cm. This is unlikely to be evolutionary in the Darwinian sense, as the height of someone in the Netherlands is unlikely to help them escape much danger (thus increasing the likelihood of them reaching sexual maturity and reproducing). Plus of course, evolution moves at a glacial pace. The spurt in average height in the Netherlands is shown by a study which revealed that the most fertile men were 7cm above the average height, while the least fertile were an itsy-bitsy 14cm shorter than the average. Why this is happening in the Netherlands and not elsewhere is another question and would seem to come down to subjectivity, so like stuff off the top shelf, the stumpier Dutch just can’t get it.

One of my favourite words that I never use is ‘Rubenesque’. It hails from the time of Ruben, and means plump and sensuous, given that the ideal of female beauty at the time had more meat on her bones than the emaciated image we’re confronted with today.

Over the years, we (Western Europeans, at least) have changed our aesthetic tastes so that our women are slimmer and our men taller. We still hang onto the idea that karma will make everything alright though.

Everything changes but hope, as Gary Barlow scribbled in an early writing session. It’s just a shame that not a lot of words rhyme with hope. Pope, soap, cope, trope…. ehm….. periscope….. it’s probably better he went with ‘you’ in the end. But anyway, karma is basically just a convenient rationale to paper over the cracks of chaos in otherwise comprehensible lives.

My idea of karma is based on our behaviour with other people. If we’re nice to people (scratch that, not even necessarily nice, just civil will do), then social pressure makes it more difficult for them to be unpleasant with us. This might be a particularly British attitude like queuing, but the social contract dictates that unreasonable behaviour draws attention, which is undesirable. Put it this way, if you’re nice, other people are more likely to be nice to you. If you’re a dick, it’s easier for people to be a dick to you. I don’t believe in auras and that hippy-dippy stuff, but I do believe that our behaviour helps mould other peoples attitudes when they’re around us. You know the stuff; crossed arms suggests defensiveness which can be picked up on subconsciously and maintained during conversation. Raised voices aren’t necessarily markers of tempers already lost, but can act as catalysts for losing ones rag.

If you drive quickly without a great deal of care, then you’re probably going to be involved in more fender benders than a careful driver. It’s not karma getting you back, it’s your behaviour, sorry. If you’ve cheated on someone before, it’s probably not karma if you yourself then get cheated on - rather you’ve not made particularly good choices in terms of partners and/or your treatment of them. It’s not karma, it’s the decisions you make, sorry. You get the idea. 

Tragedies will continue to happen. Scumbags will win the lottery. Hibs will go on defiantly not winning the Scottish Cup. It’s not karma; it’s horrible, incomprehensible, cruel chaotic chance. Luck, both for good or bad exists. These are things which are outside of our control. But the things that we can have an impact on aren’t subject to the vagaries of karma either. Karma’s the bogeyman that exists because of the way we interact and treat each other. There are no karma police, we do it to ourselves. Or for those less au fait with Radiohead, as the expression goes, you reap what you sow.