When asked what he believed to be the greatest discovery of the 20th century, Albert Einstein is said to have answered, “Compound interest.” And wealthy people — you know, the ones who clip debt-instrument coupons as a pastime — would undoubtedly agree with him.
Compound interest, however, can accrue on things other than money. When I was a very young man, I observed that I almost always ended up paying considerably more for an irresponsible action than what I had hoped to gain from it. When the payment came due, it was like an invisible balloon note that carried onerous, compounded interest. (Sound familiar?)
I thought about this when I read that former Oakland Raiders Jack Tatum, known in his playing days as “The Assassin,” had died in 2010 at age sixty-one. During his playing days, Tatum let it be known that when he took the field, his goal was to maim his opponents.
On August 12, 1978, in a preseason game, he took that goal to its extreme with a brutal hit on Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots. Stingley had been vulnerable while reaching for a high pass over the middle from quarterback Steve Grogan.
At the moment of impact, Stingley’s life was forever changed. He spent his remaining years as a quadriplegic, and died in 2007 at age fifty-five.
Hard as it is to believe, Jack Tatum never once tried to contact Stingley to apologize — or even to see how he was doing. When asked by a reporter about the incident, he simply said, “I was just trying to do my job. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
In his later years, Jack Tatum suffered from severe diabetes, which resulted in his losing his left leg and five toes on his right foot. One can’t help but wonder if Tatum’s horrific health problems and death at a relatively young age represent compounded interest that came due on his karma debt.
And what about Mike Nifong, the rogue prosecutor who tried to railroad three Duke lacrosse players into life sentences for a crime they did not commit? After his misdeeds were discovered, Nifong lost everything — his prestigious district attorney title (that he was willing to commit criminal acts to retain), his license to practice law, the respect of friends, family, and the public, and, most assuredly, respect for himself.
Did Nifong’s enormous losses comprise compounded interest that came due on his karma debt?
As a final example, I can’t help thinking of the late Johnny Cochran, who died of a brain tumor in 2005. Every non-comatose adult can vividly remember Cochran’s transformation of the O.J. Simpson trial into the Mark Fuhrman trial. And his ludicrous attempt at Muhammed Ali-like poetry that cinched the deal for his murderous client: “If it [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
For years, Cochran, with a straight face, insisted, in his frequent television appearances, that O.J. was innocent. This, even after those infamous Bruno Magli shoe pictures were published. It was, of course, a bold-faced lie. Cochran had a razor-sharp mind and was certainly no Pollyanna. There’s no way he didn’t know O.J. was guilty as sin.
Was Cochran’s gruesome death compounded interest that came due on his karma debt?
I could make a pretty long list here — as I’m sure you could — but you get the idea: “Everything that goes around comes around.” It’s a nice, tight philosophical view of life that is very comforting — that is, until we come up against two scenarios that don’t fit the karma mold:
- When bad things happen to good people, and …
- When good things happen to bad people.
In thousands of years of recorded history, no one has even come close to being able to explain why bad things sometimes happen to good people. It could be that God has a plan to which we are not privy. Or that appropriate rewards will be forthcoming in the afterlife. Or perhaps that God doesn’t care about earthly events. Who knows for certain?
As for good things happening to bad people, it’s a scenario that is every bit as frustrating as bad things happening to good people. We all know bona fide scoundrels and full-blooded vermin who appear to live charmed lives, with their debts never seeming to come due.
So, where does that leave Jack Tatum, Mike Nifong, Johnny Cochran, and untold numbers of other shameless folks? Were they just unlucky people who got caught in the gears of a random universe, while even worse characters, through nothing more than the luck of the draw, got off scot free?
I don’t think so. While I haven’t been appointed to speak on behalf of the Final Judge, my gut tells me that the Tatums, Nifongs, and Cochrans of the world do, in fact, fall into the “everything that goes around comes around” category.
But humility compels me to admit that I have no explanation for why good people sometimes get punished and bad people often get away with murder (in some cases, literally). That being so, I choose not to fret about when, where, and how punishments will be meted out to those who make careers out of lying, stealing, cheating, and committing aggression against others.
My mantra is simple: Don’t try to direct traffic unless God has personally appointed you to do so. Just be patient and watch in awe as events unfold through the years. Even more important, live your own life on the premise that everything that goes around does, indeed, come around.
That said, it’s best to recognize that no matter how righteous you may be, you still may get struck down by a brain tumor, heart attack, or diabetes. Even so, what do you have to lose by striving to lead a virtuous life?
It’s true, of course, that even if you invest an extraordinary amount of effort into living your life on the high road, you still will fall far short of moral perfection. Which raises the question: Is it worth it? I believe it is, because striving for moral perfection, of and by itself, is a great reward.
When all is said and done, no one can say with certainty whether or not an abstract phenomenon such as karma is at work in our universe. But why tempt the fates and run the risk of finding out the hard way that it is?
I pledge to you that the moment I come up with answers to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, you’ll be the first to know. However, in all candor, I must admit that I do not expect the Conscious Universal Power Source to share the answer with me anytime soon.
In the meantime, my best advice is to live your life as though you believe that karma is a reality. Or, to put it in more secular, pragmatic terms, live every moment as though the whole world were watching.