The Worst Chapter Of Our Lives Will Never Be Our Whole Story

Joshua Earle / Unsplash

I recently had a vivid dream about receiving an odd assignment on my first day at a new job. In my dream, several new hires eagerly met with our supervisor who surprised us by tasking us with writing an essay on “karma.”

Gulp. A lump of anxiety formed in my throat that I could feel, even in my dream state. I was pretty sure “karma” was just a fancy word for “destiny” or “fate,” a heady topic under any name and one I wasn’t thrilled to tackle.

As dream-me first considered the word, I couldn’t get past the biggest event of my real life. I lost my not quite six-year-old daughter four years ago to an illness.

Was this really my fate? Had my actions to that point really led me to that dismal destiny? If so, what horrific act had I perpetrated that karma needed to punish me so completely?

I didn’t want to write the essay. I wanted to run as far from impossible questions as I could.

So instead of sitting down to write, I went to visit a friend in prison; a person who exists in real life but who happened to be incarcerated only in my dream. As we talked, he told me about a mutual acquaintance, this one a fictional product of my subconscious mind, who regularly visited him in jail.

I was surprised at my friend’s news. Though he has a good heart, he is, in reality, a rough and tumble product of the working class Polish/Italian streets where we grew up. He’s lived a violent at times existence, eeking out a living through both legal and illegal means, and has a personal ethos that justice does indeed mandate an eye for an eye in nearly all situations.

His visitor, on the other hand, was conceived in my mind as a frail Asian named Jung Lee who seemed to me to be far too intellectual, kind, and gentle to have much in common with my friend. Nevertheless, my friend talked in my dream about the difference Jung Lee had made in his life by visiting him.

He looked forward to their regular meetings and the lessons he learned through Jung’s far different perspective. He seemed eager to make positive changes in his life on his coming release from prison.

At this point, the dream fizzled, as they often do. I awoke, immediately replaying the fragments in my mind and piecing them together as best I could.

How did the rest of the dream relate to the karma essay assignment given at the beginning? I felt my friend’s fictional interaction with the Jung Lee character might hold some meaning worth exploring.

Perhaps my friend’s destiny wasn’t his incarceration and all the actions that led to it. Though that was certainly part of it, maybe his full destiny was still evolving. Maybe meeting Jung and all that might follow were as much a part of his story as anything that happened previously.

He could even have a hand in shaping this fate, and already was shaping it, just by accepting Jung into his life and being open to a new message counter to nearly everything he had heard and believed to this point. A life of atonement through sharing his story and helping others avoid similar paths seemed a likely second act.

I’m very aware that this is a simplistic and optimistic viewpoint. Does anyone really want to accept that karma is so unforgiving as to deal out a lengthy prison term or the loss of the one person you love the most and that the story ends there?

A story of redemption offers hope. And really, without hope what incentive is there to trudge forward?

There’s no question the view of karma I derived from this dream is healthier than a view where karma leads to the horrific event and just ends there. It’s also a view that promotes self-preservation so it could be clouded by an overriding desire to survive above all else.

I’m still wrestling with that and likely will for a long time. I’ll certainly always believe that part of karma for me was the loss of my daughter and that there is no real reason for it. It just happened, and there was certainly an immense feeling of soul-crushing finality.

In the wake of her death, I’ve grieved mightily this finality. That’s a huge part of the story.

But maybe that’s not all there is to it. Maybe there are more chapters.

There’s also the story of trying to live a more authentic life by leaving a career I detested and starting my own business doing something about which I’m passionate. If there’s any chance she can see me from wherever she is, I’d want her to see me defined not only by grief but also by hope.

For all of us who are carrying around the weight of loss or poor choices or bad luck, perhaps that seemingly defining event isn’t the whole of our story. I’m not willing to say the reason the bad thing happened is so the good thing could follow, but I am willing to entertain the idea that we can persevere and grow and help create a new path with multiple events that define us.

Most explanations of karma I’ve read refer to this sum total of many actions and events; not just one. To me, this means we have many opportunities each day, right up until the day we draw our last breath, to help write our destinies through big and small actions.

Granted, some actions (or inactions) loom much larger than others and will assume greater roles in shaping who we become, but it’s the very rare one that exclusively marks anyone forever. All of us who are mired in struggles that seem all-encompassing may gain some much-needed hope and perspective by remembering this multifaceted nature of the elusive concept of karma.

“Realize that everything connects to everything else.” ~Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

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