About once a year I end up writing something about karma, and, in these uninspiring times,  this is one of those days.

According to Wikipedia:

“Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. Karma … names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction that governs all life. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated … it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment. Karma is not fate, for humans act with free will creating their own destiny … The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response.”

I have another definition, which I believe I once read somewhere:

“Karma is the mechanical expiation of sin.”

I always seem to remember that I saw it attributed to Tolstoy, whom it seems as though it suits, especially the older Tolstoy. I quoted it in my book “My Life as a Quant.” But when I google this quote, all I ever find is my own attribution of it, so I must be wrong. Anyhow, I like it. I take it to mean that the universe wants you to stop behaving mechanically in relation to the things you do that are wrong; if you don’t cease by voluntary expiation and repair things yourself,  then the universe will mechanically grind away at your vanities until you submit — involuntary expiation, an unpleasant prospect.

I often feel that this is what is happening to the U.S. these past few years: involuntary expiation. If you won’t change from inside then the universe works to change you from outside. From inside is better than from outside. Changes are called for, and no one with power and influence wants to re-examine their behavior and cease behaving mechanically. As it says in Wikipedia, the conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response. More prosaically, karma is what happens when you kick the can down the road.

I write about this a little in the book I’m completing, Models.Behaving.Badly. What’s miraculous is that occasionally, rarely, there are people like Mandela and de Klerk, or Gorbachev, who stop behaving like programmed machines, and break the cycle of karma. In the US we’re still waiting for someone like that. One has to beware of charismatic leaders, especially in periods of mass unhappiness, but we need some nonmechanical person to look up to and change the status quo.