There are people out there right now who have wronged me and have never faced retribution for it. They didn’t wind up sad, alone, or even live to regret their awful actions. Sometimes people do bad things and still go on to live consequence-free lives. The universe just never gives them that slap upside the head that we all promise each other it will.
Karma happens constantly in movies and TV shows, but not as much in the actual world. In the actual world, Biff Tannen’s car doesn’t always wind up filled with manure as his punishment for chasing Marty McFly though 1955 Hill Valley. In many cases, Biff catches Marty, beats him to death with his bare hands, and then enjoys a Pepsi served by Goldie Wilson. Sometimes our fables don’t have morals.
I had to teach this lesson to my daughter a few weeks ago when she and a friend, Kelly, got into trouble for playing a “funny joke” on another friend. I should clarify, only my daughter got into trouble and the joke, while not really mean, wasn’t all that funny. I was the one who found out and, even though the situation was defused, I made Olivia go to bed early because she hadn’t come to tell me right away when their friend became upset. It was a very dad moment.
My wife and I agreed not to tell Kelly’s parents. After all, it was a small issue and one that was handled right away. We were also protecting Olivia’s reputation and trying to avoid stitches, ditches, and all of that fun stuff. Of course, my daughter didn’t think any of this was fair and expressed it.
It’s not fair that I had to go to bed early and nothing happens to Kelly.
You’re right. In fact, nothing might ever happen to Kelly.
I know. She’s not getting punished.
No, I mean nothing might ever happen to Kelly. Ever. You won’t hear this often, but you know how adults always say, “She’ll get hers one day” or “she won’t learn this important lesson now and she’ll grow up to be a worse person because of it?”
That might not happen. Sometimes people grow up and nothing bad happens to them at all. That’s why you don’t do the right thing just to avoid getting in trouble or so someone else gets punished one day. You do the right thing to do the right thing. You do it so that other people do the right thing for you. You do it so you, and only you, become a better person. Nothing about what you learn today has anything to do with Kelly and what she learns.
I felt like I was teaching us both something in that moment. It was a lesson that life had been slowly putting into my brain, but I never realized was there. It was both cynical and beautiful all at once.
It makes me think of the first time I heard the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine” in elementary school music class. I was so hung up on the line, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Up until that age, I never even contemplated such a thing. The way I viewed that question wasn’t religious, but more symbolic. It was asking how would we all interact without the thought of an eventual sense of justice.
Even people who don’t believe in heaven believe in some sort of universal judgment system. They’ll pat you on the shoulder after you’ve been knocked down and promise, “Don’t worry. They’ll get theirs in the end.” It’s basically heaven without the harps but delivers that same warm feeling of revenge we yearn for in those painful moments.
It seems that so much about picking ourselves up from a bad situation relies on those who knocked us down getting knocked down themselves because of it. But what if none of that happens? What if the bad guys don’t get their due? Could you still get up, move forward, and grow?
It took a while for me to figure out that by making the downfall of my enemies one of the steps in my healing process, I was sabotaging myself. Rather than patting myself on the back for bouncing back, I was wringing my hands in anger over how “unfair” it is that those who did me wrong didn’t wind up getting their just desserts from some invisible force that I don’t have any control over. It served no purpose other than to turn a positive life change for me into a frustrating negative demand on other people.
Bettering myself has nothing to do with other people. I don’t soar higher because someone else falls and I don’t confuse smug satisfaction for upwards momentum. I do what I do for me and for the people who treat me well. Those who don’t fit into one of those two categories, don’t factor too highly on my list of inspirations for life changing moments.
The people who do me wrong in life might end up as perfectly happy people in the end. It doesn’t feel right, but it’s the way it is. If I can accept that, only then will I be just fine too.