Theory of Relative Insanity
He might have thought himself as a theoretical physicist, but Einstein was actually an accidental Buddhist. His famous definition of insanity as ``doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is actually the most succinct yet best definition of Karma that I have come across.
Two recently dead people illustrate Einstein’s point well. One is Kim Jong-il. Back in the fall of 2008 when we just began hearing about Kim’s recovery from a possible stroke, I also read how insurance actuaries were calculating the odds of Kim dying in the next few months and years. As you know, actuaries are the folks who calculate possibilities for the occurrence of certain events based on extensive past records, and they are scarily accurate.
I don’t recall exactly, but I believe that they had calculated that someone like Kim, with his age and health history, would have more than 50 percent chance of dying in the next five years. That percentage would skyrocket to almost 80 percent, however, if Kim took up smoking and drinking again, excess of which probably led to the original stroke.
Lo and behold, Kim dropped dead of a massive heart attack in about three years since the first stroke and less than a year after we began hearing that he had begun smoking again. As I said, those actuaries are accurate. That’s how insurance companies make lots of money relying on the odds calculated by these scary folks.
Funny thing is, these odds were not secret. There are commercial actuary tables that you can buy to look up the odds for just about everything. So, I am sure that Kim’s doctors told him about the odds against his survival should he take up smoking again. Yet, we know that Kim smoked. Maybe not right after the stroke when he was recovering, but soon after he felt well enough to get around. We can safely guess that he restarted not only smoking but also drinking, having been informed that these very activities would hasten his certain death, which it did.
Which all goes to show you that Kim, according to Einstein, was insane; he somehow deluded himself into expecting different results by doing the same thing all over again. Well, he deluded himself right into a heart attack.
The second recently dead person is Whitney Houston. Currently, we actually don’t know the exact cause of her sudden death, but rumors point to a deadly combination of prescription drugs, much like what happened to Heath Ledger. We also know that Houston had a history of drug abuse, both illegal and legal. As she herself admitted through her past interviews, she knew that drugs were bad for her. In fact, I am sure that doctors, families, and friends all told her that abusing drugs would lead to not only professional downturn but also ill health.
I don’t know whether Houston was clinically addicted to prescription drugs. But all evidence points to the fact that abusing drugs was a habitual part of her life. She probably knew full well that drugs would someday kill her, but she did it anyway. She had everything to live for, including a beautiful daughter, but she kept doing the same thing all over again and again. Somehow, she probably thought that she could get a pass. Wrong. She was another victim of Einstein’s insanity of expecting something different by doing the same thing.
Before we scoff at Kim and Houston for their insanity, let’s take a look at ourselves. Aren’t we doing the same thing? Don’t we all have something ― bad habits, personality flaw, etc. ― that we want to fix about ourselves but can’t seem to shake? They may not be as bad as drug abuse or chain smoking, but these ``bad habits” sure have their claws deep into us, don’t they, and affect how we want our lives to be? And what if these ``bad habits” are actually habits of the mind that you don’t even know that you have?
For example, what if you have an unconscious prejudice against Southeast Asians? How will that bias affect your relationships in a Korea that’s increasingly multicultural? Worse, what if you don’t even know that you have this prejudice? In that case, you will be making the same, prejudiced judgment against people from Southeast Asia unconsciously yet wondering why you can’t seem to get along with your coworker who happens to have a Vietnamese mother.
This teaches us in the simplest terms what Karma is: it’s a simple equation of cause and effect. If you do A, then you will get B. Conversely, insanity is doing A but expecting that you will get C. All the while, you know that, for everyone else, A will lead to B. Why do we expect that the Karmic equation doesn’t apply to us? Because we are delusional.
You see how insane this is? How insane we all are? We keep repeating the same exact behavior ― both mental and physical ― and expecting that, somehow, results would be different for us, that we can somehow escape the odds that everyone else in the world is subject to.
Sure, go tell that to an actuary. He would probably refer you to an insurance salesman.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is email@example.com.