I’m back from a trip to Tennessee for my mother’s 80th birthday. It was a good trip, and I’m particularly thankful we got out of DFW when the weather had airlines canceling flights by the hundreds.

In the course of normal catching up with friends and family, I got some news about a guy I went to church with as a kid – we’ll call him Albert, to protect the not-so-innocent. It seems he now has an advancing case of Parkinson’s Disease. He was a few years ahead of me – that would put him in his early 50’s… younger than most Parkinson’s patients, though certainly not unheard of.

The person who passed this along is a Christian, and he framed it as “if there was ever a case of reaping what you sow…”

When we were all kids (but as my mother liked to say, “old enough to know better”), Albert loved to make fun of people – especially old people. He’d mock people with limps, facial tics, odd speech patterns… And it wasn’t misguided but good-natured teasing. He would mock people to their faces, laugh at them, then walk off. In an time and place where racism was very strong, his racial jokes were particularly mean-spirited.

Christians call it reaping what you sow. The Eastern religions call it karma. Wiccans call it the Threefold Law – whatever you send out comes back to you threefold, good for good and ill for ill.

Are these laws true? The case of Albert is certainly evidence that they are. With a little thought, though, I can come up with plenty of counterexamples where evildoers prosper and those who do good suffer.

It is part of our evolutionary human nature to want to see evildoers punished. Civilization has advanced exponentially over the past 10,000 years because we’ve learned how to cooperate (whether or not those advances are all good is another topic). We work together and we postpone immediate gratification for the long-term common good, and in doing so we’re all better off than we’d be if we acted as lone wolves. The complication with this, though, is that some people cheat – they reap the benefits without contributing, and in some cases they help themselves by actively harming others.

We can’t stop all cheating and evildoing, so we like to think that those who do these things will “get theirs” somewhere down the road – that’s why the concept of hell is so attractive. But viewing karma as punishment only makes sense if there’s some great scorekeeper in the sky, a concept that fits traditional monotheism much better than it fits universalism and Paganism.

Some argue that there is a balance that must be maintained, and if you take in one place you have to give in another. Casual observation says that may be true for systems as a whole, but not for individuals. And while you can make a case for an energy equilibrium that must be maintained, it’s hard to make a case for a moral or ethical equilibrium.

As much as I want to believe in balance and the ultimate restoration of balance, I can’t – my observations of the world won’t let me. And if we take this too far, we end up assuming the poor are to blame for their suffering and the rich are “God’s elect.”

But I can believe in this:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

I’ve heard this most of my life. A quick bit of googling attributes it to many sources, from the Upanishads to a 12 year old writing in 1989. The source is ultimately unimportant – what’s important is that it matches the world as we experience it.

Did Albert’s mean-spirited mocking cause his Parkinson’s disease? No, but the question shows how we want simple, straightforward, cause-and-effect explanations.

The truth is far more complicated.

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