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What did I do to deserve this?
December 3rd, 2016

kings and pawns, © 

From time to time, we might ask ourselves « what the hell did I do, in a past life, to deserve this? » This might arise e.g. when some people are particularly nasty to us, discriminate against us, etc., for no obvious reason we may find in recent interactions with them.

For Buddhists, it's easy to relate this to karma (even though it might be erroneous, as the commonly-held « The wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions » is too black&white, and contradicts in many ways the teachings on karma by the Buddha). Most also relate it to a “past life”, at least in jest!

Interestingly, however, one of the tempting answers is most often plain wrong: we simply assume that we did the same to someone else… therefore we're now simply on the receiving end of that behaviour (thus naïvely seeing karma as a retribution law, which it isn't!).

But, if we're to tell the truth, in that particular moment, we're also feeling that the behaviour we're subjected to is grave, is important, is particularly bad… so when we assume that we did the same, we're in fact assuming that we were particularly bad (so bad that this evil followed us, through death!)… and when we do so, we just flatter ourselves!
We're giving weight to our ego; we're again making ourselves the center, or one of the organising constraints to be respected, of the universe (thus falling for an arrogance denounced by the atheist joke according to which some assume that praying to God would be enough to make Him take some time off one afternoon from His normal job, of systematically murdering African babies, to answer their prayer); we're making ourselves “special” (forgetting that even if it's true, is it relevant?)!

If we look around us for a second, though, we see that the very vast majority of people are not particularly bad, they don't do horrendous things to others. They're just trying to get by, to feed themselves and their families, to ensure securities to those they love. The way they approach these goals might be ignorant, unwise, misguided, biased, prejudiced; the morality on display might very much be “relativistic”, reconfigured dynamically as one sees fit while one clings to one's desires; sure! But it certainly isn't “special” in any way. Nor does it take a “dramatic” form, usually.

If the myth of pure evil is that evil is committed with the intention of causing harm and an absence of moral considerations, then it applies to very few acts of so-called “pure evil” because most evildoers believe what they are doing is forgivable or justifiable. Steven Pinker

There are many forms of a maxim, sometimes attributed to Burke or to Jefferson, which states that « all tyranny needs, to gain a foothold, is for people of good conscience to remain silent », or

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

If anything, this maxim describes very common behaviour: complicit silence… out of fear of being picked upon by the aggressive ones; out of selfish indifference (First they came…); sometimes, simply out of not knowing what to do (and being complacent about this not-knowing: accepting “I don't know” instead of putting time and effort to enquire, to find out, to learn, not to stay stuck again in the future).

So if we're to accept selflessness, if we're to stop flattering our ego by making ourselves especially “bad” (in some unknown —i.e. fantasised— “past”), then complicit silence is probably the oh-so-common karmic seeds we actually planted.
Complicit silence is the behaviour we legitimised, the example we gave to all around us, maybe the behaviour we took pains to justify at length when experiencing guilt or when asked by others why we didn't act…
And complicit silence is what we suffer from, right now: the issue is not just that we're “attacked” (or at least “threatened”) but that nobody seems to protect us, to take our defence, to take a stand and state that the aggressive behaviour is unacceptable…
If people around us were to react wholesomely, the event might cause discomfort, but it wouldn't so easily lead to the self-centred « what did I do to deserve this? » We make it personal, in part because others don't consider it's relevant to them and we internalise this view and conclude that « if it's not about them, then it has to be about me » (in a very dualistic, caricatural way). « It's not about me » for onlookers is ignorant though, and so is the unfolding « it's about me » for the targets.

If we look in the mirror, we surely held such views more than once, that attacks on others are “their” problem, that if people loose their jobs it's “their” problem, that if refugees need to flee somewhere it's “their” problem, that if people are hurt by some policies or some social / political trends it's “their” problem, never “ours”… So why do we experience loneliness in facing some difficulties, a loneliness leading to « why me? »? Could it be because we're so ordinarily prone to indifference vis-à-vis the problems of others?
Of course, it'd again be making ourselves “special” to think that others “should” defend us… all the more so if we don't lead the way when others are subjected to racism, sexism, baseless attacks… all the more so if we're ourselves exemplifying “bystander apathy”!
Complicit silence is complicit: silence usually condones rather than condemns, if only because its ambiguity will too easily be distorted by self-serving interpretations. If we were silent, if we didn't protect the weak, after we legitimised selfish apathy, after we didn't mitigate unwholesome behaviours, why would anyone come to our rescue when we need a voice, an advocate?

For the Buddhists, “right speech” is important here:

abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter SN 45.8

Now, in the face of divisive speech, is intervention itself another form of divisive speech? It might be, and escalation rarely is in anyone's interest. Yet the Buddha did not forbid admonishing another, he only suggested, in the patimokkha, to investigate oneself first (to lead by example, to be constructive, not to fall into the « do as I say, not as I do ») and to choose one's timing and words carefully. But, depending on the circumstances, there might be a better way than admonishing! There are five factors to “right speech”:

It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will. AN 5.198

So, surely, abusing an abuser doesn't qualify. However, the well-understood strategy of engaging with the victim (not letting them feel like they are alone in the situation, moving to sit or stand next to them, making eye contact and asking if they are OK and if they want to move away from the perpetrator together) does!
Non-action or restraint is too often just a self-serving excuse not to take responsibility: with “right speech”, “right action”, “right livelihood”, it's impossible to pretend that the eightfold path lies in indifferent paralysis.

« There was nothing I could do » is too often a self-serving lie. Sometimes, people seek special powers through religious practices, the capacity to perform miracles… and yet the real miracle is always the same: finding the strength and discipline of character to « do unto others as you would have them do unto you ».

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udānavarga 5:18

If you would suffer not to find support in some situations, then offer equivalent support to others! Dāna is the first “practical” quality to develop on the path, it is directly related to creating a better world for all.