Last week I phoned my ex-sister-in-law. I’d heard she’s having more health problems. Chaotica sounded groggy. “I’m on pain pills. I’m having surgery next week and the pain in my back and legs is excruciating.” I’m not surprised she’s on painkillers. Chaotica has spent most of her adult life going from doctor to doctor for hard-to-diagnose ailments. She had triple by-pass surgery three years ago and nearly died—not only from the heart problem, but from the effects of all the prescription drugs she’d been on.
“I went to Seattle with a friend last week and had a rotten time,” she said. “I started vomiting non-stop.” “Was that a reaction to your meds?” “I don’t think so. I ate a cookie that wasn’t cooked thoroughly. I think that did it.”
She ate a cookie. Chaotica has diabetes and insulin doesn’t bring her blood sugar down to safe levels. Her heart and other organs are affected. Yet every time I see her at a social occasion, she’s tanking up on desserts. Although she’s a bright person with a degree in counseling, Chaotica has never managed to exert any control over her own life. Currently, she’s married to a guy who has lost his driver’s license for multiple DUI offences. A compulsive gambler, he cleaned out her checking account while she was in the hospital for her heart surgery.
Recently I attended a session at the SL Zen Center with Genpo Roshi. He talked about awakening—being fully conscious of our lives and our behavior. I thought about Chaotica—and other people like her—stuck in unproductive behavior, stumbling through life, eyes closed to the possibilities available to them—seeing themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control.
Roshi talked about karma—the chain of cause and effect. While we don’t control everything that happens to us—getting hit by a bus, rape, and disease, for example—we are responsible for our reaction to these events. Awakening is becoming fully conscious—aware of our responsibility and our choices in life.
For many people I know, a religious experience or conversion is an awakening factor in their life. I used to be critical of people who experienced a conversion, joined a church, then left it for another within a short period. I now realize that we humans generally need more than one awakening in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking that awakening experience in a new setting.
I wish I knew how to help Chaotica. I want to yell, “Wake up! You’re missing out on a great life!” Of course, telling her what I think she’s doing wrong would be even less effective than telling my dog that rolling in garbage makes her stink. Most religions call unskillful behavior “sin” which is much like dropping acid onto a wound. It might kill a few germs, but will the collateral damage be worth it?
Is there any way to help a person who takes no responsibility for her actions? A person who sees herself as a victim of circumstances beyond her control?