On Not Learning Lessons.

Ostrich Feather by Garry Knight is licensed under CC by 2.0

In ancient Egypt, there’s this funny thing called ma’at. Ma’at is a complicated topic. It can be defined as “universal order”, or “balance”; it can be conceived of as “justice” or “right action”; it can even be seen as a kind of law of returns in it’s own way. I admit I’ve never had a consistent grasp on what ma’at means. Whenever I think I really get it, it starts to slip between my fingers, and I have to adjust my perception. Right now, ma’at looks a lot like one of Newton’s laws to me. Everything has a consequence. A real, immediate, tangible consequence will follow any action you take. If you eat, you won’t be hungry anymore. If you put your hand in a fire, you will get burned. If someone stabs you, you’re going to start bleeding. Simple.

Of course it’s not simple. Because life will eternally present us with difficult and unexpected challenges, making us question what we’ve done to deserve them. It’s human nature to wonder what’s making us hurt, I suppose. An example: I have managed to pick up some kind of virus or cold roughly every three weeks for the last five months. My instinct is to shake my fist at the sky and wonder what I did to bring this upon myself. Did the gods decide I needed to learn something by being sick? Did I piss off a doctor in a past life? Did I give some poor old lady the flu by not getting my flu shot? Is this a message that I’m doing something wrong?

First: the gods don’t want to hurt us. I’m using a fairly innocuous example here, so maaaybe the gods are trying to teach me something by guiding me into situations where I’m likely to pick up some kind of fairly benign bug — but this vein of thinking gets dangerous when we start to wonder about deaths, or serious injuries, or chronic illnesses. The gods really don’t want you to go through the world-rending pain that major trauma invokes. Do the gods want you to learn from your experiences and grow? Yes. Did they send an eighteen-wheeler to cut you off so you’d spin out on the highway, break your leg and wind up unable to work for several months? The likelihood is so low it might as well be impossible.

Second: ma’at exists in the present. There’s very little evidence in antiquity for the concept of accountable reincarnation. There is some evidence for reincarnation, I hear (I don’t exactly know the details so don’t quote me) but the general attitude is always that you are held accountable for your accumulated goodness or badness at the time of death. This makes a lot of sense if you consider the complex structure of the soul and its multiple parts; different pieces of the soul do different things after death, so if only part of you is going to reincarnate, how can that piece be held accountable for something that happened while it was just working as a piece of a whole? That’s like punishing someone’s lung for giving them kidney stones.

Third: ma’at is generally direct and straightforward. If you eat, you won’t be hungry. If you drop a vase, it will break. If you curse someone out, they won’t want to spend time with you again and your relationship will deteriorate. If you offer to the gods, they’ll be more present in your life. Ma’at rarely operates in enigmatic ways.

So then why did I get sick so many times? Well, I work with children. I was stressed about planning a wedding, and finishing the winter semester for both work and grad school. I was spending more time with people in general to get ready for my own wedding and to celebrate other weddings. It was also the beginning of cold weather. All those things add up to heightened probability of illness. That’s where ma’at is in all of this; not pulling some invisible strings that I could never hope to understand, but woven through the circumstances that lead to very sniffly results. Is there a lesson to be learned from all my minor illnesses? Maybe, but it probably doesn’t have much to do with the gods.

Sometimes, things just happen. Just because we live in a world that is touched by gods and spirits doesn’t mean we don’t also follow natural laws and processes; it also doesn’t mean that those gods and spirits touch every single thing in the world. When life gets you down and you’re cursing the gods for putting you in a bad position, just remember — ma’at doesn’t punish, it reacts. Take steps to bring goodness into your life, even if it is small, and goodness will come into your life, to be multiplied and cherished.

(NB: ma’at can also be conceived of as the natural order of things (sunrises, seasonal changes, the annual flood, etc). In this case, following the natural order of things, or doing what is right, is also ma’at. The concept of ma’at as right action is interconnected with ma’at as reaction. When you do things “in ma’at” the reaction is a magnification of natural and moral order. And since it is natural for there to be a reaction for every action… ma’at magnifies itself. I could write any number of blog posts on the subject and probably not come close to explaining ma’at in its entirety, but that’s the simplest thorough explanation I can give.)

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