karma—noun; [C19: from Sanskrit: action, effect]
1. Hinduism, Buddhism the principle of retributive justice determining a person’s state of life and the state of his reincarnations as the effect of his past deeds;
2. Theosophy the doctrine of inevitable consequence;
3. Destiny or fate
I believe in karma. I also believe that I don’t have to wait until my next avatar to reap what I sow. In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma means the effect of a person’s actions that determine his destiny in his next incarnation.
I see karma as the equivalent of that envelope we get in the mail here in California after being caught for a traffic violation. You pray and hope that the officer who flagged you down on a fateful morning for your error forgot all about you after your little chat by the side of the road. But every single time, with the precision of the mailman, the garbage man and the taxman, exactly two weeks later, a little sheet arrives in the mail with a heart-stopping fine amount. That, sweetheart, is karma.
I will say that karma is quite different, however, in the world of tequila. When it comes to a margarita, the karmic consequences are always here and now. That is what I discovered on one bright blue Sunday morning in Redwood City a few weekends ago.
I was dying to bathe in a margarita after months of being away from America but the minute I drank a glass that day, it seemed, all of a sudden, that I had no idea who the man was sitting right in front of me under the red umbrella until, in a while, the chips, the salsas, the salad and the quesadilla arrived and, ever so slowly, like wisps of white rising from the Golden Gate along with the mid-morning sun, the fog evanesced and the stranger before me began looking less and less like Brad Pitt and more and more—and this I tell you is the pits—like my husband who, as usual, was texting like a hormonal teen on his smartphone.
While my husband was certainly no Pitt and I most definitely no Jolie, the larger truth about the two of us being a spirited couple remained, long after the spirits had worn off. I also realized how we were in this partnership for the long haul and how we were trying to make every day count even though I hated how my husband counted the pennies that I had spent as registered by the billing department at American Express.
I was jolted yet again that afternoon by the two lines on the black shirts worn by the staff at Milagros Cantina: “We’re not here for a long time. We’re here for a good time.” The lines reminded me of the talk I had just heard the day prior in a lecture by Dr. Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and the author of The Art of Choosing. It was one of the most eloquent and significant talks that I’d heard in many years. It seemed that decades after surmounting her challenges, Iyengar was still pondering karma and asking questions about fate, chance and choice. In a presentation that held all 800 attendees spellbound, Iyengar told us how she had chosen to let the tragic circumstances of her life became the cornerstone of her career.
Sheena Iyengar was blind by the time she reached 11th grade owing to an inherited disease of retinal degeneration. Her father passed away when she had not even finished middle school. He was just 43.
Iyengar’s father was dead following three successive heart attacks on a day when he had complained of some pain in the leg and stopped at the doctor’s office to have a check-up. Unfortunately, the checkup got postponed to the following day due to circumstances beyond his control. Was that fate playing its hand? Would he have lived had he got the doctor’s appointment and received timely help? Maybe. Would a doctor have discovered the blood clot and prevented the onset of a heart attack? Maybe.
Early on in their lives, a palm reader had told her father that he would die early unless he took care of himself. Iyengar believes her father had a choice, especially with regard to lifestyle. He could have taken measures to eat better and cut the fat, and avoided the fried chicken that he loved so much and made especially well. But food was his first love. He lived the way he wanted to live, serving the Sikh temple, praying, loving his work, eating well and savoring his life. She says that if she has distilled one thing from her father’s life and from her years of research on the idea of choice and consequence, it’s this: you cannot make long-term goals because fate and chance can skew your plans but you can make daily choices towards your goal that will ultimately put you on the course towards a more meaningful and productive life.
I thought about all the things the blind professor had said at the fundraiser dinner hosted by the South Asian Heart Center. I reflected on the choices I had made in my own career in recent months. I decided that I had mostly made the right ones even if sometimes it meant sinking time into Facebook and investing time in writing work that I couldn’t see as fruitful in the long term.
As for the food choices that balmy afternoon at Milagros, the decisions my husband and I made weren’t that bad either. We chose to eat the vegetarian salad and a whole wheat quesadilla, a heart-healthy choice given our heightened awareness about diet following our experience at the heart center gala year after year. We asked the waiter at Milagros to ensure that the chef tossed the salad with a generous sprinkling of their evil Diablo sauce.
Of course it burned us up with every mouthful, thanks to a choice we made. But I tell you this: I wouldn’t have had it any other way—that afternoon or in all my life.