[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
I work at a used-car dealership where I’m forced to rip people off. It’s killing my spirit a little bit every day. I wish I could be making the world a better place, but instead, I’m spending 60 hours a week selling snake oil and gypsy tears to poor unsuspecting people. How do I dig myself out of this situation and reverse all of the bad karma?
The job pays well, and while I know the money isn’t everything, it covers the bills and supports my family. Should I quit this job and take a lower-paying job? Should I keep the job and just be glad I’m getting by? I’m not sure how to turn the situation around, but this isn’t who I am.
Killing My Karma
Dear Killing My Karma,
The word “karma” gets thrown around a lot. It seems it’s usually used to describe a sort of cosmic kind of good or bad luck, a punishment or reward that awaits us based on what we’ve done in the past. In this way, we can think of it more simply as cause and effect: what we reap, we shall sow. But one very important aspect of karma is that it doesn’t only work toward an impending future benefit or curse. You also have karma that you’ve already developed in the past that you’re experiencing right now — karma that has led to this very moment and to the particular situation you’re contemplating.
I urge you to consider that you’ve actually been building up good karma for many years, and that this good karma is now revealing itself to you in an urgent form of undeniable instinct. It’s an inner voice presenting you with a new type of clarity — an overwhelming sense of moral integrity, a pressure — which is making it virtually impossible for you to go on living against the principles which you know in your heart to be right. Everything good you’ve ever done has developed over the years into an internal ethical compass — a conscience — which is returning your goodness with an increased sense of what leads to further goodness. The payoff for good karma isn’t necessarily some sort of external material gain, but rather an internal and ever-increasing inner wealth of understanding and strengthening of character. That’s the real payoff: getting to learn how to live a good life as yourself. You didn’t do good things in the past just to develop some sort of blind good luck that rewards you with pennies from heaven. You earned the ability to cultivate true happiness based on your real efforts to understand what you know in your heart to be good and true.
The surest way for you to develop bad karma now would be by ignoring this extremely persistent impulse telling you to change your job situation. You have a chance to decide to live a better life. And again, the bad karma you generate by turning away from your conscience here wouldn’t necessarily be experienced as typical material misfortune or hardship, but instead, by the growing personal misery and suffering due to denying one’s higher sense of purpose and living in bad faith. Taking the low road. Basically, once you start to ignore your conscience, you start down a strange and dimly lit path that grows darker and darker as you proceed without a compass. You begin to lose all trace of yourself — you lose sense of what really makes life worth living — and as a result, life gets harder and harder to navigate, and we find ourselves stooping to lower and lower means of trying to achieve easy ways of getting back on track. There’s really only one way to get back on track, and that’s by doing the right thing, even when it’s not as glamorous or as comfortable as the other options.
You’ve arrived at this very significant moment in life where you have the chance to do the right thing — a moment so important and profound that every ounce of your being and inner self are screaming out and urging you to make this change. And though this type of change can seem intimidating, inconvenient, stressful, and quite painful, it is really more exciting and valuable than any other life experience. It is an opportunity to grow and take one more step toward realizing what life can really be about. It is a chance to empower your own integrity, so that it can lead you to a deeper and more meaningful version of life.
Despite our most cynical worldviews, we instinctively know that getting ahead in life at the expense of others is not the way to live. It may give us a slight short-term advantage, but just as with any quick fix, there’s always a price to pay later, usually leaving us worse off than we were before we tried to scheme our way ahead. And at that point, we either try to change our ways completely, or we double down and go even deeper into conniving and unethical efforts to “win.” If we look for justifications for our bad behavior, we will find plenty of them.
We can look around us and quickly locate an almost endless assortment of reasons not to do what we know is right. We can say, “Well, everyone else is breaking the rules, so I have to as well.” We can say, “I have to provide for my family, even if it means doing bad things. It’s just how the world is.” We can find all sorts of excuses that encourage our self-deception and ignorance, and most of us put a lot of time and thought into finding rationalizations for decisionmaking that we know is flawed. But all it takes is one simple decision to listen to your heart of hearts — that deeper inner voice — and every negative outside influence is silenced. The choice to listen to your own natural conscience is a choice to live in harmony with your own soul, and as a result, the soul of everything.
Any naturally occurring motivation to be a better person is something sacred. And when it emerges out of you directly — without obvious outside manipulation, or encouragement — it is a miraculous type of revelation. It is the truth coming out of you and into the world. And it should be celebrated and cherished, and most of all, obeyed. Not obeyed with a type of meager servitude, but obeyed as a type of rejoicing, because it’s a chance to serve the best part of yourself and to serve truth itself. Really, there shouldn’t be any question in your heart as to whether or not you should follow this instinct. The only question should be how to develop the strength necessary to do so, and how to develop the discipline and courage to do what we really know we should do in life. The fact that your conscience is speaking to you so clearly is a testimony to how strong your character already is.
Besides, what is the point of having a nice house or providing for your family if it’s done through the scamming and cheating of others? I had some jobs when I was a teenager that involved ripping people off, and it is one of the great shames of my life. Every day I try to think of ways to make up for the hurt I caused others. And whatever little money I had has been long spent on trivial junk. There was really no achievement for all my efforts to trick people into buying what I was selling. After all, what sort of achievement is any type of success if we have no peace of mind to enjoy it? How can we raise our children to be good people if the very foundation of their home life was built on a dishonorable pursuit? Can we really feel like we’ve accomplished something great in life if that accomplishment was nothing more than a slightly more cunning method of getting money out of people in our pointless competition for who can accumulate the most fancy stuff? None of this does anything for really improving what it means to be alive. We are too well aware of people who have plenty of money and cars and houses but who are miserable in the midst of all their wealth. They traded their life and energy for a bunch of high-priced stuff, and now don’t even have the basic internal means to enjoy it. There are some people who truly believe all that matters in life is getting ahead, no matter what it takes, and that somehow if they can make enough money, they can actually buy their way out of the consequences for their own actions. But really, they are ultimately cheating themselves. We cannot get away from the results of what we are doing, good or bad. It simply doesn’t work that way, no matter how much we might wish it did.
If we really love our life, we should respect it enough to listen to what it tells us to do, even when those things are inconvenient and difficult. We should work hard to develop our ability to hear what our instinct is telling us to do, and not just block it out by hypnotizing ourselves into an oblivious state of endless physical gratification. We cannot continuously ignore what we know instinctively to be right and true and expect to be happy at the same time.
Follow your feelings and find a new job that doesn’t force you to compromise your values. The fact that you wrote in about this means you already have the answer to your own question. I hope my reply here just gave you the reassurance that your instinct is correct. You will be happier, your family will be happier — and after all, if the point of supporting your family is to bring them happiness, there is ultimately no shortcut to getting there, especially if that shortcut involves making other families unhappy. The best part is that if you listen to your conscience, you will have truly earned your happiness and deserve all the good karma that comes with it.
The voice inside you telling you that there is a better way to live is like a precious and innocent newborn baby — a very pure type of being that only knows truth and goodness and is free from corruption and darkness. This inner being is very much a part of your family as well. Protect and raise up the inner voice inside of you just as you would your own child. It is the best part of you. It is the truth.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.