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My spouse recently shared a story with me about something that happened at work. One of his sub-foremen found a bank withdrawal envelope containing $400 in cash just outside their work site. The withdrawal slip was tucked inside, which showed the unfortunate person’s remaining account balance of $91. Now, the right thing to do would be to return the envelope to the bank so they could use the withdrawal slip to reunite the owner with their money. This man did not do the right thing. He did the expected thing. He kept the money.

Here we are a week later, and this story still bothers me. Given their low remaining balance, it’s obvious that cash meant something significant to the account holder. My spouse’s coworker, however, was able to brush off that concern—guilt-free—under the universal law of “finders keepers, losers weepers.” This makes me wonder how many people heed the other equally powerful universal law: “karma is a bitch.”

What’s that? You don’t believe in karma? Allow me to share two anecdotes that might convince you otherwise.

The first story takes place in the mid-90s. My friend, Jennie, and I were spending a lazy Saturday at the local mall. Jennie wanted to restock on some lotions and sprays so we stopped at the body shop. As she chatted with the sales associate, I sniffed and tested all of their latest seasonal collections. When Jennie was done, we left the shop and continued on to the Hallmark store a few doors down, where an adorable mug caught my eye. I reached out my hand to pick it up, and found I was unable to . . . because I was still holding a bottle of body spray in my hand.

desserts

Cosmic Dessert?  Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. on Pexels

I don’t know how I didn’t realize that bottle was still in my hand when we left the body shop, but Jennie said the look on my face was one of sheer mortification. As I fought off an epic meltdown over the fact that I’d essentially stolen something, Jennie took the spray and calmly placed it in her shopping bag. We beat a hasty retreat from the mall, looking over our shoulders the entire time for the mall cops. I wondered whether I should return the spray and face the consequences, but Jennie said the store would likely still treat it as a shoplifting incident. Maybe she was right.

That incident haunted me for months. So much so that I refused to use the accidentally-purloined perfume, until one day, on a bright spring morning, I gulped down my guilt and applied the body spray—Harvest Apple, I think—from head to toe. And then, karma came a knocking. Within minutes, my entire body broke out in an ugly, bumpy rash that made me hot and itchy all over. I was miserable and promptly threw out the rest. But was that allergic reaction mere coincidence or direct causal karma?

Now, let’s jump forward in time about six years for my next anecdote. I stopped by the local grocery store to pick up supplies for an impromptu cookout. Among the items on my list was a bag of charcoal, which cost about $6. I put it on that bottom tray of the shopping cart and made my way to the check-out line. As I loaded the bags into my car, I realized that I hadn’t paid for the charcoal. I forgot to place it on the belt, and the clerks neglected to check the bottom of my cart.

I knew I should go back inside and pay for it, but a small voice in my head said that no one else in the world but me would bother. I was tired of being cast as the eternal goody-two-shoes, so I loaded up my “free” bag of charcoal and drove home. When I told everyone what happened, they all agreed that I’d done the right thing. Well, maybe not the right thing, but the normal thing. The expected thing.

Two weeks later, I was shopping again at a different store, and this time, I’d loaded a large box of freezer pops onto the bottom of the cart. I paid for my items, including the freezer pops, and left the store. It wasn’t until later that evening, when my kids asked about an after dinner treat, that I realized the freezer pops never made it into the car. I’d left them on the bottom of the cart. The cost for the box of freezer pops? About $6.

Of course, even if I had paid for the charcoal, I may still have left the freezer pops behind, and then I’d just have been a shmuck out of luck. But in my case, it felt like karma. Cosmic just desserts. I’m not one for the metaphysical, but I do believe in karma as a concept. Maybe not so much as a sentient and intentional force that seeks to balance rights and wrongs but as a law of averages that catches up to us sooner or later. Coincidence we perceive as punishment or reward for earlier, unrelated deeds. Or maybe in some cases, it’s simply the direct and just consequences of our own actions.

Regardless, I like to think karma will take care of the man who kept the $400, because a lesson feels needed here. Maybe he’ll get hit with an unexpected $400 car repair or his air conditioner will give out. The problem is that even if the man pays for his lack of integrity, and even if he does learn from it, that doesn’t help the poor soul with a remaining account balance of $91. That $400 is a month’s rent or a utility payment. That’s food and diapers for two weeks. Of course, some among us will say that maybe the sub-foreman was the tool of karmic force himself, and the person who lost the $400 had it coming with their own previous dishonesty. It could be true, because karma is cyclic, but it’s also a convenient framing of the situation to ease the “keepers” guilt.

Whatever the story, I believe that when we dismiss honesty and empathy with a pithy saying such as “finders keepers, losers weepers,” we not only potentially wrong the “loser” but we morally compromise ourselves. We also lose the right to sympathy when—whether through cosmic intention, coincidence or causality—karma comes a knocking on our doors. And sooner or later, it will.