Lacey McLaughlin stood in my office doorway last Wednesday morning, coffee cup in hand, and leaned against the doorjamb.
"Can I ask you a philosophical question?" she asked. "Do you believe in karma?"
"Well," I said, "I have no reason not to."
Turns out, someone had broken into her car the night before, smashing a window. The thief didn't steal anything; Lacey didn't have anything valuable to steal in the car. Nonetheless, it was a shock.
Having had similar experiences, I empathized: When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, burglars hit me three times. Every time, I felt violated. Someone had come into my home, gone through my belongings, freaked out my cats and helped themselves to my stuff.
It's comforting to think that people who do harm will pay at some point, without us having to lift a finger. We like to think that if we do good things, the universe will repay us by not letting bad things happen to us.
It's not quite that simple, of course; our good fortunes are no more directly linked to good things we do than life-kicking-us-in-the-teeth incidents are directly linked to bad things we do--usually. For every Bernie Ebbers who gets caught, thousands of crooked CEOs will die rich with all their toys intact.
Let's just say our individual karma is tied up with our collective karma. Many Eastern philosophies suggest that we accumulate as much bad karma from simply allowing bad things to happen as we do when we personally steal, lie, cheat or harm someone or something. Apparently, there's no particular time limit on karma's effects, either.
It's no accident that Lacey got me thinking about karma in the face of the worst man-made ecological disaster in our nation's history. It's easy to look at the mess in the Gulf of Mexico and point fingers away from me: BP, Halliburton and Transocean; the Department of Interior and the Minerals Management Service; anti-regulation conservatives; lax oversight; laziness and fat-living all get blamed, and with good reason. I can't remember when I've seen a more egregious combination of irresponsible behavior causing such a monstrous mess. I'm not even sure if I can wrap my mind around how big a mess this is.
Since learning of the Gulf gusher some 40 days ago, I scan the Internet every day for the latest news. Instinctively, I understood immediately that this was going to be bad. How bad is still unknown, although it is undoubtedly among the worst man-made environmental nightmares, and by far the largest oil spill in American history. (The world record, so far, belongs to Saddam Hussein; he purposely dumped 460 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991.)
I waver between wanting to scream and moments of doubt when I think I must be sensationalizing the event. Sometimes I can't help but moan in pain, tears constricting my throat and stinging my eyes. Often I'm just plain angry; my quotient of cussing goes up every day and with every new ignorant statement made by some politician or corporate goon looking to cover his oily tracks.
Back in 1973, I drove a little red 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Gasoline was around 38 cents a gallon. With an eight or nine gallon tank, I could top off with three bucks, about what it costs for a single gallon of regular today. By June of 1974, gas had gone up 70 percent, to about 55 cents a gallon. The OPEC cartel held America, and much of the world, hostage over its Middle East policies (specifically our support of Israel). The government asked stations not to sell gas on weekends, and we sat in long lines waiting to fill our tanks.
Hit in our wallets, Americans began to abandon their gas-guzzlers for smaller, lighter imports. No one was going to hold us hostage over oil again, no sir, and a flurry of research into fuel efficiency went into high gear.
It wasn't long, though, before we all went back to sleep about oil, lulled, perhaps, by the hum of our radials on the way to our suburban enclaves. As the embargo receded from memory, sedans morphed into SUVs with names like Expedition and Armada, Blazer and Mountaineer--tough names for dangerous times. We forgot, of course, that we created our own danger with our lust for oil.
We humans forget a lot, especially when remembering means we have to change. And there is the crux of the problem: We've spent decades demanding that the rest of the world conform to what America wants. We gobble up a quarter of the world's energy with a mere 4.5 percent of the its population (both China and India have about four times the number of people). We have allowed amoral corporations to act in our name with impunity. We've stood by while politicians gutted our government in favor of private entities that increased spending and decreased responsibility. We can't sustain, and we can't understand why government isn't doing enough fast enough.
But I rant.
I pray to God that this catastrophe will wake us up again. Awake Americans are a force to be reckoned with; not even corporate titans are safe when the American people move to fix things that are wrong. Armed with a bit of righteous indignation, we have the power to change everything, starting with ourselves.
Purposeful change requires us to stay awake and vigilant, though, especially when we want nothing more than to go back to sleep--back to sitcoms and suburbs, safe behind gated illusions of safety and control.
"When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true size; for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe," wrote Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy in Yes! magazine. "We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. That solidarity, with our neighbors and all that lives, is all the more real for the uncertainty we face."
It is an uncertain world; it's always been that way. In the end, it's not the unknown that's going to get us, though, but our unwillingness to change and our docile acceptance of simple answers that slide easily into our comfort zones without question.
We'll survive this mess--probably. How we survive, and what karma we'll create for tomorrow remains an open question. What we have to work with is right now, this moment, and no other. Will you stay awake now?
Great alarm clock, Ronni. Thank you.