My son was looking for examples of motifs in The Great Gatsby. My daughter was delving into the themes in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn.” Meanwhile, this week, I was being attacked by theme and motif. This is what happens when a writer doesn’t write. Life rises up at every turn to smack you in the face with all the stagecraft of a rhetorical farce.
Sometimes we write to change the world; sometimes, it’s just to get it out of our system.
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This one ethical principle, expressed throughout history by nearly every religion and philosophy, ought to be simple enough to abide. Why, then, isn’t it? It’s easier, sometimes, to assume that the way others treat us is the way they want to be treated. After all, if everyone actually followed the Golden Rule, this ought to be a safe assumption: If you kick me in the teeth, then my throwing you off a bridge ought to simply delight you. Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to work this way in practice.
In practice, the scales of Karmic justice are more like a dish, balanced atop a pencil–a horizontal wheel hung with scales like a carnival swing. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule doesn’t play out like two polite kindergartners on a teeter-totter. Try explaining that to a child.
“If George hits me, is it okay to make him eat sand?”
“Well, no – of course not.”
“But why not?”
“Because, Jimmy, some day, someone’s going to make George eat a face-full of sand, but since your behavior’s been exemplary, you’ll be having ice cream with your girlfriend and won’t even remember George’s name.”
Jimmy thinks about this for a second. Reasoning that girls are yucky and having a girlfriend might actually be worse than a face-full of sand, he asks, “Why can’t I be the someone who makes George eat a face-full of sand?”
“Well, because then your turn would come in another ten years. Someone would probably kick your teeth in, or something.”
“I still wanna make George eat sand.” Teeth seem a small price to pay. After all, Jimmy lost one two years ago, and a new one grew in to take its place.
“I know, Sweetie. So do I. But we’re better than that. And dental work’s expensive.”
“I don’t wanna be better than that. And I thought we had insurance.”
Kids are smart. But sometimes they can’t see things on a cosmic, Karmic scale. Future things, anyway. Dinosaurs, they get. After all, dinosaurs roamed the earth when mom and dad were little, right?
“Turn the other cheek” isn’t an admonishment I’m likely to comply with, either, when I’m hurt by others–nor will I pretend to think that offering myself up like a lamb to the slaughter is the right answer to injustice while secretly plotting revenge against anyone who would do me wrong. Though there’s no virtue in revenge, there’s none that I can see in allowing others to be tyrants. How, then, do we restrain anger and the need for retribution in a world where the Golden Rule is all but ignored? The words “life’s not fair” have never struck me as a phrase that ought to be accepted without question or argument. The universe itself is neither “fair” nor “unfair” – but to the extent that “fairness” is within human control, it is collectively our fault that injustice exists in the world.
That said, I refuse to indulge in the cynical, misanthropic, self-loathing, pessimistic snarking about how awful we humans are and how we, for the good of all the plants and animals on earth, ought to stop reproducing and herd ourselves off a cliff. Surely we can do better than that? Besides, voluntary human extinction would never be agreed to by the pathological personalities that seek to dominate and control others; where would be the fun in that? They’d find a way to dodge the bullet – maybe “saving” the meekest among us – and would have a whole world to themselves, with no one to torment but each other.
That said, I’m also not planning to farm my back yard, walk four miles to work and back each day in 100-degree heat, or use gray-water for showers and recycle my potato peelings for energy, no matter how badly the industrial revolution and exploitation of fossil fuels have damaged our fragile ecosystems.
Maybe this life is meant to be a struggle for balance, always. Light and dark, compassion and selfishness, discipline and indulgence, kindness and cruelty, spinach and chocolate… After all, without light, the darkness would lose its appeal – we’d likely turn into a bunch of depressed mole rats. Without darkness, we’d go mad for lack of a good night’s sleep. Without selfishness, we’d all be on a futile quest to do what others wanted in a world where others had no wants. Without indulgence, there would be no reward for discipline (like chocolate); without discipline (like spinach), we’d be unruly children and never get anything done. Maybe we do need sorrow to fully grasp the heights of happiness. But I don’t think we need cruelty to appreciate kindness. I don’t think that we need evil to appreciate good. Evil controls us through fear; courage, wrapped in love, is an antidote to evil. We don’t need fear, but we do desperately need more courage and love if the world we’ve carved out for ourselves is to be not merely tolerable, but full of joy.