Six months ago, Jack and I sat in a VA doctor’s office and listened as two neurologists explained the diagnoses of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. We argued with the experts a bit, tried to find another explanation for his many symptoms. But in the end, it was obvious that, indeed, PSP checked all the boxes for what was going on with him.
When we left the office, both of us numb, Jack said to me, “This is Karma for what I did in Vietnam.”
So today, the letter ‘K’ is brought to you by Karma.
In my experience, the philosophy of Karma, wielded by the uninformed, can be a lethal weapon similar to that of the Prosperity Gospel so popular among some American Christian sects. You’re familiar with Prosperity Gospel, right? Essentially, the heresy is that God blesses those who love and serve Him. Therefore I am rich because I am loved by God, and you are poor because, well, God just isn’t that fond of you. Western understanding of karma puts a little different spin on this concept, but it’s essentially the same old victim blaming. If you’re healthy and striving, God loves you. If you’re sick or puny, God is trying to tell you something. Generally this message from the almighty will be interpreted by these folks as your need to see and believe in God in the exact same way in which they view Him.
Now, I am not saying that guilt and trauma and pain doesn’t reside within our very cells. What I am saying is that, while it is good and productive to work at understanding and forgiving ourselves, it is false and unhealthy to think that we ever deserve anything, good or bad, that we get in this life. Jack and I have been married for almost three decades, in that time it has been my privilege to talk to dozens of Vietnam vets about the guilt and shame they carry with them every day.
Every warrior in every war, yes that’s right I’m going to state an absolute here, does things that, in peace, would be unthinkable. This is why I become truly infuriated when people glorify war. There is nothing glorious about war. Nothing whatsoever. If you think that’s not true, you’ve never been in combat and my bet is you’ve never loved a warrior.
I get irritated with Jack a lot. You all know that. But I am rarely truly angry with him. But that day six months ago outside the office of the neurologist, his karma remark infuriated me enough to pull me out of my numbness, and cause me to turn to him and say, “That is complete and utter bullshit. You don’t deserve this diagnoses any more than you deserved the wonderful years we’ve had together. Life happens and we deal with it the best we can.”
Jack is my hero. Not because of what he did in a war in Southeast Asia, but because of his courageous and persistent introspection, his unfailing struggle to spit into the eye of his own demons.
Do I think the combat trauma he’s carried within himself for over fifty years may have contributed in some way to what is now going on in his central brain? I don’t think the possibility can be ruled out.
Do I think trooping through a jungle for months which was saturated with Agent Orange contributed to him developing this particularly virulent form of Parkinson disease? Yes, I have I strongly suspect it did.
Do I think this miserable disease is some cosmic payback for what he did as an eighteen year-old in the middle of a godawful horrible war? NO, NO I DO NOT!
So, while I understand why Jack’s first reaction to his diagnoses was that it was a sort of twisted Godly tit-for-tat for what he did in Vietnam and for which he has never been able to completely forgive himself, I reject the theory outright.
I do not know why Jack has PSP. Nor do I know why we were allowed twenty-five years of adventures most people only read about, or why he was blessed with the intellect and strength and insight to wrestle his demons and become the hero he is. But I know for a damn fact that this disease is not punishment for past wrongs, or the revenge of a wrathful God, or proof that the universe is withholding its positive energy.
Karma isn’t some twisted survivor guilt we pull out to explain every bad thing that happens in our life.