Pascal's Karmic Gamble
Updated: Apr 17
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, is best known for his famous “gamble”. Considering the question of the existence of God, Pascal looked at the question like the probability theorist that he was, providing an archetypal cost-benefit analysis.
If you live as if God exists and he doesn’t, what is the downside? Perhaps you end up foregoing a few momentary pleasures. If he does exist and you live as if he does, yours, argued Pascal, is an eternal reward. Alternately, if you live as if God doesn’t exist and he does, you have opted for eternal damnation in exchange for a few moments of pleasure.
To Pascal, the rational choice was obvious.
I like to believe that Pascal may have made another bet as well. I call it Pascal’s Karmic Gamble.
Do you believe in rebirth, that the essence of your being begins a new life in a new body sometime, for instance maybe 49 days, after your biological death?
Hold that question.
Do you believe in Karma, that good deeds lead to good outcomes for you and bad deeds to bad outcomes? We all want to believe that this is true, that fundamentally there is justice in this world. But we all know people who seem to be getting away with murder. Is there no justice in the world? We are all horrified when bad things happen to good people.
Where’s the justice?
The cycle of rebirth solves this dilemma for the religions which arose on the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Good deeds will be rewarded in this life or in the next life or in a life to follow: justice will be done. When it seems to us that bad things are happening to good people, we are seeing only this life. The troubles we confront may not have been of our doing in this life. They could be the consequence of a past life as well.
In the cycle of birth and rebirth, we continue until all our bad karma has been resolved.
And bad things do happen to us, even to social entrepreneurs who are striving to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded. Why is this happening to me? Sometimes the answer is obvious: the sink is overflowing because I left the water running. But often I don’t see the event which led to the frightening challenge of the moment.
It is healthy in these moments to pause. Sometimes on reflection, although it wasn’t obvious at first, I can find the seeds of my present trouble. I learned this so vividly from Aaron Stein who supervised me on group therapy when I was at Brookdale. One of the groups I was working with was latency age boys. When little Daniel blew up at me toward the end of the session, I was astonished. I told Aaron, “I have no idea where this is coming from.” Aaron showed me. At the very beginning of the session, I had embarrassed Daniel. Cause and effect. Karma.
I shared this lesson again and again as we built our schools. A student says, “Fuck you,” to a teacher. The teacher is enraged, embarrassed, insulted. The teacher demands the student’s suspension. The disrespect must not be allowed to go unpunished.
When I asked, “What did you do that might have provoked the ‘fuck you’?” teachers often feel unsupported. Our Karma is often hard to face, hard to acknowledge.
As we looked at our practice through the lens of racism in the months following the murder of George Floyd, we often found that the “fuck you” was provoked by some inadvertent, subtle expression of racism.
Hard for our teachers to acknowledge but a wonderful teaching.
It is much harder, though, when we cannot find a cause. “This is so unfair. Why is this happening to me?”
When I naively signed a lease with an unscrupulous landlord who took advantage of my trust, I felt so victimized. “Why did he do this to me? I didn’t deserve this. Me, who treats all vendors as partners.”
My friends with years of real estate experience laughed at me. “We all made the same mistake starting out.” Why did I have to learn this lesson? I had never been an unscrupulous landlord.
Karma relieves me of the burden of wallowing in self-pity. Maybe I did nothing in this lifetime to deserve this challenge but somehow, I have inherited it. The question then is simple, “Do I face the challenge, or do I ignore it?”
Karma works for me as a wonderful piece of paradoxical therapy. In the words of the Fram Oil Filter pitchman in the old TV commercials, “Pay me now or pay me later.” It’s my choice. My “wonderful” charter application has been rejected yet again. Life is unfair. Why is this happening? What did I do to deserve this?
Maybe nothing in this life, in this body. Who knows which previous life has brought me the challenge of working with unfair demands. “That’s Life,” the Fram Oil Filter guy might have said. It’s my choice. I can take up this challenge now or postpone the unpleasantness to another day, to the next lifetime or perhaps even farther in the future. Realizing though that the challenge will always be there, arising lifetime after lifetime until I settle this Karma, always waiting for me. I write another charter application. And another. Eventually, an application is approved.
When I realize that I have the choice to deal with this challenging piece of Karma now or to postpone dealing with it to the future in this life or the next life or the life after, I have almost always found myself deciding to face the challenge now and get it over with rather than put if off. Otherwise, it will always be hanging over me, a demon hovering in the shadows. That's how the paradox works and why the Fram commercial sells oil filters.
This has been an enormously valuable teaching, a key to continually moving forward in the face of setbacks without wallowing in self-pity.
But do I really believe all this stuff about Karma and rebirth?
This is Pascal’s Karmic gamble. My rationale brain finds no reason to believe in karma and rebirth. Maybe it’s a cuckoo idea. But does that matter? The upside of the gamble is that I no longer need to wallow in self-pity. In so many arenas of my life, this just is. This is the hand I’ve been dealt. What’s the downside?
Do I really believe this karma stuff?
I am happy to take Pascal’s Karmic gamble.
I have no idea if this is true or not, but life seems to be better, and I am able to accomplish more if I act as if it’s true.
It’s worth the gamble.