Have I ruined my karma by sleeping with prostitutes?

I've quit with the whores, but now my life is a mess. Is this my punishment?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 10, 2008 10:17AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A few years into my marriage, physical relations with my wife fell off dramatically, partly due to a medical condition on her part. Not long thereafter, I started to engage the services of working girls. I thought that all was well as long as I didn't spend our retirement money, didn't bring home some horrendous disease, or ruin my career.

I was never foolish enough to think of leaving my wife for one of these women. I know who's going to stick around to take care of me when I'm drooling into a cup and staring blankly at TV reruns of "Battlestar Galactica," and it's not going to be someone whose company comes at an hourly rate. After several years of this I finally put a stop to it just a couple of months ago. I've quit cold turkey.

The problem is that I feel I'm paying for my transgression in other ways. I left a job about two years ago and the job I've taken is horrible. Not only that, it's in another city, so I'm commuting on weekends to see my wife. For almost a year now I've been looking for a new job and can't even get potential employers to return my calls. I feel stuck here, and each day I grow more despondent.

I'm so unhappy and convinced that I've created a bad fate for myself that on more than a few nights I've cried myself to sleep. Unfortunately, I can't just quit because we need the second salary. I'm not the least bit religious, despite years of Catholic school, and I don't think I'm superstitious. But I can't help feeling that being imprisoned in a city I dislike and in a job I hate is somehow punishment for my years of dalliance. I'm despairing to the point that I'm starting to believe that while I was able to avoid direct negative impacts from years of cheating, this being stuck in a lousy job in a faraway city will lead indirectly to just the types of karmic retribution I thought I'd avoided: a broken marriage and a sad middle-aged life. If I've really screwed up my karma, how do I fix it?

Ruined My Karma

Dear Ruined,

Sometimes when we are going through adversity we feel that it is karmic. But there is no authority who can tell us for sure. There is no record book of our transgressions and consequent punishments, their duration and intensity.

We may ask, did I screw over the wrong person? Is someone pulling strings in the shadows, preventing me from getting what I want? Do I have unknown enemies? And how long is this going to last? Is it going to get worse, or is this as bad as it gets?

Or we may say, as long as I am here, I might as well try to learn something. And often what we learn will seem like a revelation: We will realize exactly why we are in this mess, what belief or deep-seated character trait is behind the behavior that resulted in our misfortune. Such a revelation can be so uncanny that it seems karma is at work. But is it the hand of a supernatural law? Or is it the working out of sociological patterns?

I don't know. I know stuff works in patterns, and life is full of danger that turns out to be opportunity, and simple things are best, and it's not about us. I know simple stuff like that.

Thus the saint, abandoned on the mountain by his sherpas, has a revelation: My relationships are one-sided. It's all about me! No wonder nobody's returning my calls!

Isolated and shunned, we learn humility. Our transgressions lead us to learn things and to change. And because of the beautiful symmetry of it, it can seem like an unseen hand at work.

You ask if your current unhappy situation will lead indirectly to the kind of karmic retribution you thought you'd avoided. But you are already suffering. You have been suffering for years. There may be some end state in which you are actually penniless and alone, but you are already in hell.

I don't know why I say that. I don't know what I'm getting at. Why does this affect me so hard?

Do you mind if I revert, as I so often do, to my own paltry experience? I know only a handful of things, and they are the things that have happened to me. Everything else is conjecture. But this I know:

I worked for Chevron a long time ago, back in the early 1980s, and they took care of me in a way; I found shelter and routine there; the individuals I worked with were kind to me; they were a happy bunch, and there was mutual affection between us; they did not understand exactly why a well-educated writer and musician was making copies in the copier room and learning word processing on Wang machines, but they didn't complain. They thought maybe I would go back to school and become a lawyer like them.

But I was troubled. One day I got crazy and quit. I screwed them over. I abandoned ship. I ran off. I left them in the lurch -- with dramatic flourish and a new hair color.

Although we sell our labor on the open market and we are free to join and quit companies as we choose, in this case there were personal connections that were breached. I did not handle it well.

Over the next seven years I became a political radical and denounced Chevron, my former benefactor, as evil, as the incarnation of some monstrous planet-destroying evil. My political perspective became warped as my thinking in general became warped; I abused drugs and alcohol and found myself addicted, penniless, alone and half-mad. In 1989, as I began to come out of my madness, I felt ashamed of what I had done. It remained something that haunted me, unfinished business.

In 1995 I was broke and I went back to the same temp agency that I had used in 1980, and they sent me, as they had 15 years earlier, to Chevron.

It is interesting that you say you are a prisoner. When we meet adversity like this, it is as though we have been captured by the enemy and imprisoned. We do our time.

I was at Chevron off and on for five years, riding the train back and forth, writing in my notebook, alone on the N-Judah with my roiling dreams and crazy thoughts.

I did my time. I did five years. And I learned a simple trade. I learned the trade of copy editing. I learned it to a degree I had not learned it before: I learned to do it completely. I mastered it. And what I learned there led to my job at Salon. I came to Salon not swaggering but carrying a toolbox. I came as a worker, a guy with skills.

So that is my story. We don't know why we are thrown into adversity, but adversity can be a time of learning. It was the daily humbling anonymous toil that taught me. I needed to learn humility in the workplace. It took me a long time to get it.

And here is the other thing: The whole time I was there I was never welcomed into the fold. I remained a temp. I tried to get them to hire me. They would not have me. I was just paying a debt.

So was it karmic? Does it matter? It is not about abstract forces and balance sheets. It's about conduct and relationships.

We do what we can to make things right. We deal with adversity as long as it lasts. We try to learn whatever our fate has to teach us.

What is your fate? What is your karma?

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