Yes or No? “What Goes Around Comes Around”

Justice and Law

Many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that life evens out in the long run. The evil go to hell, the good go to heaven. Or, if you are not religiously inclined, “What goes around comes around.” Meaning that eventually justice is done, something bad will happen to those who have done something bad, even if it looks like they are better off in the short run.

Then there are those who believe, usually in conformity to a “religion of prosperity,” that if you are injured by another you probably deserved it, since God would not authorize something that wasn’t in your best interest. Or, perhaps that the Almighty is giving you some sort of test or opportunity to learn and grow that will ultimately be of benefit to you.

Finally, there is a rather large group who don’t believe in any ultimate fairness in this life or the next — a darker view, for sure. They say that bad things do happen, sometimes randomly, and sometimes due to people who are malicious, unscrupulous, self-interested, and so forth. For those with that view, evil deeds will usually go unpunished and there isn’t much you can do about it. They ask the first two groups to defend the view that the world is ultimately just when they read the morning newspaper’s screaming headlines about chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the like. They quote the great attorney Clarence Darrow’s comment that, “There is no justice — in or out of court.”

My own view is different from these. I am not counting on heaven to put things right, although I’d be very happy to be surprised on this point. Nor do I believe in the kind of God who would authorize injury to us on earth. If he exists, and if he is all-good and all-powerful, he can cleverly produce the results he wants without mayhem and heartbreak to we fragile souls.

On the other hand, I do agree with those who believe that many people escape external punishments: prison time, loss of money, that sort of thing. But, in my experience as a therapist and observer of life, I have seen very few people who behave badly on a regular basis and are happier for it. Let me elaborate.

Some of the most destructive people I’ve known are quite unhappy. Their self-interested actions discourage others from being close to them, so they have recurring relationship issues. Those who gossip too much (we all do it some) cause others to mistrust them. Then there are the promise-breakers, who also cause friendships to end. All these imperfect humans are usually clueless to what they do that injures others — perhaps even surprised that they obtain the reputation of being dangerous. If they are powerful or wealthy or beautiful, some people will stick around them hoping for a payoff. But that is not love or the kind of companionship that most of us want.

Would you really want to be the Mafia boss who must live in fear of arrest, imprisonment, or murder by someone close to him; who must have a body-guard or two around his palatial estate? Would you trade places with a person without a conscience because he has figured out how to lie, cheat, and steal his way to prominence? Do you imagine him capable of any real intimacy? Is money or property that important to you that you’d emulate his life if you could? Or perhaps you’d love the life of a gossip who works hard to believe that everyone loves her, but knows, deep down, that her relationships are shallow? Yet she is blind to the destructiveness that causes others to shy away from anything that is more than casual.

I don’t think you’d choose any of those ways of living. Nor do I imagine that it sounds appealing to become someone so self-interested that you trade the joys of friendship and sometimes even the good feeling that comes from self-sacrifice for the temporary personal satisfaction of selfishness.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned guilt. There is a lot less guilt out there than most people think. Most of us are pretty well able to rationalize the injuries we cause to others. It often goes like this: “He did X to me, so that means I can do Y to him.” Well, no, actually, unless you want to lose your own honor and decency, which usually comes in the process of trying to right the scales of justice or get revenge.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

Here is an extreme example of losing your soul in an effort to extract revenge for a horrible betrayal. The speaker is Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, in conversation with Bill Moyers:*

I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ (play) Hecuba, a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power in the Trojan War. She’s been made a slave, but she remains absolutely morally firm, and she even says she believes that good character is stable in adversity and can’t be shaken.

But then her one deepest hope is pulled away from her. She had left her youngest child with her best friend (Polymestor), who was supposed to watch over him and his money and then bring him back when the war was over. When Hecuba gets to the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach… She looks at it more closely, and then sees it’s the body of her child, and that the friend has murdered the child for his money and just flung the body heedlessly into the waves. All of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and says, “Everything that I see is untrustworthy.” If this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy, then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted, and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge. We see her end the play by putting out the eyes of her former best friend (and murdering his two young sons), and it is predicted that she will turn into a dog. The story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes…

One part of the message here, clearly, is what can happen to you if you become like the thing you hate, as Hecuba does when she murders Polymestor’s innocent children and puts out his eyes.

I’m guessing, though, that an outcome without punishment for the murder of Hecuba’s son might not be satisfying for some of you. Surely something should happen to Polymestor. And, just as surely, we need to have some sympathy for Hecuba, even if killing the kids does go over the line. She did, after all, first go to the local authorities to seek justice and was spurned. Perhaps you imagine the sweetness and closure that would come from revenge. Or perhaps it is simply that it is not right that Polymestor get away with this.

Two possible remedies. The first one comes from my wife, who wishes that the bad guys could have just one minute of self-awareness. She thinks that to see themselves as they really are for just 60 seconds would be a fit punishment in most instances. As I see it, though, the insight that would come in that short time might be worth the pain it cost and actually increase their chances of leading a more satisfying life. Still, my wife has no superpowers that I know of (I may get in trouble for saying that) and so her ability to create the justice she’d like isn’t going to happen.

Ah, but I have a remedy, too! It’s pretty simple. The punishment for most of the folks who specialize in the garden variety hurts of everyday life — the lying, the cheating, the broken promises, and the betrayals that don’t have a criminal penalty — doesn’t require either a super hero or any equipment. It is simply to let these malefactors continue to live the messed up and unsatisfying lives they seem intent on living.

*The interview excerpt of Martha Nussbaum comes from Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, published in 1989 by Doubleday, pages 447 and 448.

The top image by ElmA is called Justice and Law. The photo of Martha Nussbaum is the work of Robin Holland. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Toxic People or “The Tale of the Green T-Shirt”

Some people are a jinx. It might be a school mate, an office mate or your brother-in-law. They are the toxic human banana peels of life, preparing you to slip up.

Harvard Grosscup was like that.

The name should tell you a lot. Harvard’s parents expected big things from their one and only child. From before his birth they fancied that he would attend the USA’s oldest and most prestigious university, so they named him after it. I imagine that put a little pressure on Harvard (the kid, not the college), but he was very smart and prepared himself for his Ivy League destination by dominating the intellectual competition early and often.

Everyone knew Harvard was super-bright from the time of kindergarten, but the suitability of his sir name, Grosscup, didn’t become apparent until some time later. More about that anon.

A clever observer of children might have noticed that Harvard was a pretty oily kid. An oily, rich kid, actually. It started with his hair tonic. Depending on the light and heat, there was a kind of incandescence coming off his head that made him look like he had a halo. A few kids called him “St. Harvard,” but the name didn’t stick because his oiliness extended to an overly ingratiating, disingenuous personal style. No saint then, but a major brown nose.

Unfortunately, he was also ultra-lubricated in one other way. Perspiration. Harvard carried an oversized handkerchief everywhere. By mid-day he had to wring the sweat out of it. Between his “used car salesman” personality, the hair tonic, and his profusion of perspiration, Harvard became known as “Slick.”

Harvard did have one saving grace in addition to his intellect: he was actually unusually well-groomed for a kid who hadn’t yet quite reached adolescence. He knew he perspired a lot, so he seemed to take more than the usual care to make sure he wore well-laundered clothes and adequate antiperspirant. As a consequence, for all his mid-day dampness, he never gave offense.

I wasn’t especially close to “Slick,” but my buddy Dwayne was. Their parents were friendly and both were interested in stamp collecting, which might have explained their friendship. It didn’t surprise me when Harvard decided to run for President of our school in eighth grade. But I was just a bit surprised that Dwayne chose to be his campaign manager.

What exactly does it mean to be the President of your primary or middle school class? Mostly prestige, I suppose. You don’t get a salary and have no authority over anything, except chairing the meetings of the student council. Still, like childhood ballgames that have no real value, kids can get pretty worked up about such things.

Dwayne asked me to help with the job of managing Slick’s campaign. While I wasn’t really enthusiastic about Harvard’s candidacy, he was running unopposed. Working with Dwayne and drawing a few posters sounded like fun. So I agreed.

The problem began when our eighth grade teacher attempted to solicit other candidates. He didn’t like the idea of an election that could be won by one vote — Harvard’s vote for himself, even if everyone else abstained. He chose Dwayne to be Harvard’s opponent when no one else volunteered.

What was Dwayne to say? The teacher didn’t care that he’d already signed up to be Slick’s campaign manager, since I would be the next-in-line to replace him in that job. When you are 13 years-old and the teacher tells you that you should do these things you don’t have much of a choice. The instructor pushed and Dwayne and I fell like dominos.

Of course, Dwayne was a much better candidate than Slick. Dwayne had more friends, probably the only criterion of importance. He was also a better athlete than Harvard, whose natural lubrication made catching a ball quite a challenge. Dwayne was also pretty good at giving speeches and generally a decent and smart guy. My dutiful campaign “managing” certainly didn’t seem likely to turn the tide.

I was now campaign manager of a guy I didn’t want to vote for; a guy who was almost certain to lose. I couldn’t back out. But worse was to come.

It started when Slick got testy over the fact that his chances had taken a hit with Dwayne’s flourishing candidacy. He wanted a more extravagant, promise-laden campaign than the one I was providing. His father suggested that he offer the entire school candy bars if elected. The teachers wouldn’t permit it. Then we tried to use pictures of the Harvard University campus in our pre-election posters. This got vetoed too, since Harvard didn’t yet have anything to do with Harvard. I finally suggested that we use a picture of an oil-gusher, with the prominent message VOTE FOR SLICK. Big mistake. This only pissed him off more. Since we were out of ideas, Slick did the only thing left that he could think of: blame me for everything.

Slick claimed that his candidacy was faltering because of my lack of imagination as his campaign manager. He was not open to considering that Dwayne was, just perhaps, a better candidate who had more friends and more charisma. Nope, it was my fault. He said if he lost he would never forgive me. And that there would be hell to pay.

The last part puzzled me. Slick wasn’t a physical threat. I wasn’t worried that he’d try to beat me up. But might his fevered brain concoct something worse than a thrashing? What could that be?

I arrived at school on the day of the election expecting that Slick would give me more grief about his inevitable defeat; that he would tell others that it was my fault. In other words, that it would be a crappy day.

An all-school assembly was scheduled for the second class period. The candidates for office would be giving speeches ahead of the actual casting of ballots. The teacher in charge saw me as I walked into the building. “Come with me,” he said. We went into an empty room.

“Harvard is Slick. Harvard is really Slick.”

What? How would a teacher know Harvard’s nickname? I didn’t respond.

“Gerry, did you hear me? I said ‘Harvard is sick.’

Now at least I heard the words properly, but I still wondered what this meant. I knew Harvard was a lot of things I didn’t like, but was the teacher suggesting that he had a mental disorder?

The instructor continued. “Harvard can’t come to school.  His stomach is upset. You have to give his speech. His mom just brought it over.”

Although I was to become a good public speaker much later in life, in eighth grade my attitude toward speech-making was the standard-issue for most human beings. In other words, I would have gladly taken poison, tickle-torture, or a bullet over speaking in front of several hundred people. OK, they were kids, but when you are a kid yourself it is all the same.

To the good, there was little time to get to the point of paralyzing anxiety, so I settled for the usual stomach-churning kind. The teacher handed me Slick’s speech and had me practice in the hallway. I wasn’t loud enough, he said, so I got louder. But it was a crappy speech and everyone, it seemed to me, would have been much better off if they couldn’t hear me give it; especially me. If there had been a handy sword to fall on, I would have jumped at the chance to get out of the job.

Finally, as the perspiration accumulated on my upper lip, I went forth “…into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell…” to give a speech on stage for Harvard Grosscup. Even as I write this I can still see all the kids in the auditorium — some whispering to each other, some falling asleep, some just staring blankly — probably thinking that I was the guy who was running for office. True, the teacher had announced that I would be standing in for the SOB Slick (the teacher didn’t use that descriptor), but he didn’t seem to emphasize it nearly enough. In any case, the audience was bored to death and I was dying on stage.

Dwayne won in a landslide. I wondered if Harvard actually had been sick or perhaps that he simply wanted to avoid the humiliation of witnessing his inevitable defeat. But one other possibility occurred to me when he returned to school the next day.

Slick approach me, looked directly at me, and said, “I’m not finished with you yet.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I heard about the crappy speech you gave yesterday. I’m going to get you, Stein.”

“But they were your words, you idiot!”

Slick was unmoved by my rejoinder. Grosscup knew that he couldn’t beat me in a fight, but he also knew I wasn’t likely to assault him. I walked away wondering if he’d stayed home from school so that I would have to endure reading his words in public.

I’ll give Slick this much, he was patient and diabolical. And he knew how to hold a grudge. In the winter term of our second year of high school I had the misfortune of having the gym locker next to Slick. The rules said you had to shower both before and after physical education, as it was amusingly called. The same set of directives included the proper attire for class. You know, a white T-shirt, shorts, heavy white socks, athletic supporter, and sneakers of the appropriate black and white color. But they said nothing about washing them.

Slick didn’t. His overly lubricated body perspired into the same outfit for months. I experienced the equivalent of living adjacent to a toxic dump. I begged him to wash his gym duds, I mocked him, I threatened him if he didn’t wash them; but no, he never did. Slick simply smiled slyly whenever I complained and said, “I told you I was going to get you, Stein.” Unfortunately, a gas mask was not available at the school store.

Harvard knew I wouldn’t start a fist fight and he also concluded that I wouldn’t be a stool pigeon and rat him out to the P.E. teacher. And so my nasal passages suffered daily silent searing as I watched a version of the seasonal color transformation unfold a few feet away from my locker. Slick’s T-shirt changed from white, to gray, to yellow, to brown, and then to green. Green did signal that spring had arrived, but the fragrance of flowers was not in evidence. I am still amazed that the toxic fumes captured in the locker didn’t eventually blow it off its hinges.

The usually perspiration-conscious Harvard had turned himself into the equivalent of an olfactory suicide bomber, an unhygienic hazard. It just goes to show you what people will do at their own personal expense in order to vent their rage. Harvard was willing to foul himself in order to foul me. As the old expression goes, he chose to bite his nose to spite his face. Unfortunately, my nose was working all too well.

What can I say? Life happens. It is not orderly, not fair, not ideal. Toxic people exist and when you are a kid, they can get the best of you; even sometimes when you are an adult. The only solution is to stay away from them or hit them harder than they hit you. I didn’t do either. Slick got his revenge on me.

So far as I know, there was no corresponding karmic catastrophe experienced by my nemesis. What goes around DIDN’T come around. Harvard Grosscup did go to Harvard. In fact, he became a surgeon with a fine reputation. Maybe the green color of his surgical gown was a fond reminder of his gym T-shirt.

One closing word of advice. If you allow him to operate on you, just be sure that you pay his bill promptly.

The slicked-back hair image is from Fredcamino, cropped by Notwist. The Lakeview Oil Gusher of 1910 was posted by The gas mask photo comes courtesy of Mutante. The surgery photo is the product of  jmelendres. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.