Lately, I have been thinking about the word “deserve.” It’s a word that parents use often to help teach children that their actions have consequences.
As adults, we continue to use this word, sometimes to question the difficult things that happen. Sometimes we use it when we sit in judgment of others.
Very often when something happens to someone we love, we say “She didn’t deserve this!” And we are right. Mom didn’t deserve cancer, but she got it anyway.
When difficult things happen to people we love, or to us, it is easy to jump to a mentality that says “What did we do to deserve this?”
As children, we are trained by punishment, or the threat of punishment. As adults this helps us to understand that if we don’t go to work we won’t get paid. But we seem to have carried the concept of punishment to the extreme, believing that the difficulties in our lives are actually caused by some agent of cosmic retribution to punish us for a prior misdoing.
Making matters worse is the Christian extremist version of God as the Angry Sky Daddy who punishes people, states and nations for an illogical set of “sins.”
On the more New Age side is the misinterpretation of karma as simply a universal force that punishes us for our misbehavior in this life, or even in a past life.
Here’s what I think. Higher Power (God, Goddess, the Universe, Spirit, etc.) is not interested in punishing us. The vengeful God of the Old Testament is probably more a product of the mindset of those who wrote the Old Testament than an actual representation of how God works.
Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, we punish ourselves.
Sometimes the Universe gives us difficult challenges to speed our growth, or to help us heal. Difficult challenges are indeed part of our karma, but they are not punishment, they are lessons. They are why we say “God moves in mysterious ways;” nothing more, nothing less.
Sometimes a story in the news, or in our own lives, will cause us to righteously and angrily assert that a person who has done something heinous deserves a particularly creative punishment.
“That person deserves to be cut with razor blades and dipped in a vat of lemon juice!”
We watch high-profile court cases as if they were a sport, discussing what the punishment should be. We are angry and disappointed if the defendant is not found guilty and punished as we think they should be. We forget the higher purpose of the American legal system is rehabilitation, or, in worst cases, to remove dangerous people from society. We prefer to delight in someone else’s punishment.
It is obvious that we develop this concept of judgment and vengeance in childhood. We develop other concepts in childhood as well. Imaginary friends, playing with dolls and digging in the sandbox are all activities we leave in the past when we become adults. Why does the need for vengeance stick with us?
One of the most meaningful aspects of Christian doctrine is the concept of forgiveness. In the story of the crucifixion Jesus asks that his torturers be forgiven. This is the paradigm to which Christians must aspire, and yet Christians are often the ones leading the battle cry to punish those who have somehow offended them.
Guidance for navigating the thorny topics of forgiveness, understanding, compassion and acceptance can be found in the Major Arcana of the tarot.
The Wheel of Fortune reminds us that everything changes. One day you are on top of the wheel, the next day you are on the bottom. That’s just the way it is. It’s nobody’s fault, and has nothing to do with what we may or may not deserve.
Justice reminds us that everything balances out in the macrocosm, not in our own microcosm. If we search for justice in our own lives, we probably won’t find it.
Judgment reminds us to get closure to our difficult past, rather than to dwell upon it. When we have closure we no longer long for vengeance against those who have wronged us.
Interestingly, all three cards share a key word: karma.
Many people mistakenly see karma as a universal law that punishes those who do wrong. Really, karma is simply the law of cause and effect; the concept that through our actions we create our lives. I think that was all our parents were trying to teach us when they punished us, too.
Perhaps, as adults, we can put aside the childish practice of trying to figure out what people deserve and focus instead on the karmic act of creating our own lives.