I recently told a colleague that having to cope with a defibrillator, OCD and beta blockers may have softened the harsh edges that were the result of my ambition. However, I would have preferred to have reached this point without all the drama. He responded that my “karma ran over my dogma”.
I chuckled over that observation for a few days. Then I wondered: Is there a significant life lesson to learn from the observation – other than the fact that it just makes a great sound bite? How do I make sure that unbridled dogma never rules my life again? Is karma the force that restrains my dogma?
In trying to answer what may be a larger than life question, it always helps to understand the meaning of the words you are using. So I started with the definition for dogma. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dogma as a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. I easily can relate to dogma, given my background as a lawyer. For years, I lived by the research, analysis and interpretation of authoritative laws and regulations.
I have heard the terms “good karma”, “bad karma”, and even “credit karma” for years. But maybe karma is a little more of an obscure concept for me. Karma is best known as a term used in both Hinduism and Buddhism, two faiths which I have minimal knowledge of based on a college philosophy and religion class. As I understand the Hindu and Buddhist concept of Karma, it relates to the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. As a concept among the broader population, Karma has also come to mean a characteristic emanation, aura, or spirit that infuses or vitalizes someone or something.
So did these two very different, but intensely forceful words play a role in my pre-heart failure life? Let’s start with dogma. In personality assessments, my scores show that I believe in laws and traditions, and expect the same from others. I am also not one who is comfortable with breaking laws or going against the rules. So dogma probably was a driving force in my very regulated and orderly life.
I also scored on my personality assessments as being a very feeling person. In fact, one career coach looked at my scores and asked me “are you sure you are an attorney?” This was because in her years of coaching she had not seen an attorney who had such a high score relating to feeling for other people.
Thinking back on that conversation, I realized that maybe my good Karma came through at key points in my life and career to balance out the dogma. In fact, I think my determination to respect order, authority and the law, when balanced equally by my desire ability to be compassionate, made me not only a good lawyer, but also a good person and hopefully an empathetic but firm supervisor.
But at some point, work life skewed this healthy balance all to hell. As the years went by in my career, and the stress increased, I seemed to branch beyond codes, regulations and authorities that governed the work world. Somehow, I had etched in my mind a series of Melanie codes by which I should live my work life, and I added more pages over time. At some point, the code volume on how Melanie should live her personal life either got buried in the attic or was completely thrown out.
By the time I was 55 the Melanie code dictated that one must always climb up the rungs of the career ladder. This was true despite the fact that early on in my career, I had recognized that there was value in taking lateral assignments to hone skills and gain maturity, When did I lose the knowledge that there was more value in being well-rounded and capable, and not just better paid having a better title?
The Melanie Code also dictated that I must devote all time possible to my career. I always had to be immediately available to my bosses, my peers, my clients and my subordinates to fix problems, even if they could wait till business hours. I realize now that I was taking away some really good learning opportunities from gifted subordinates because my availability may have pre-empted them from solving the issue. No wonder I was starting to get dog tired (or dogma tired) of my rigid standards!
Even after I retired from my job, the Melanie code materialized in my mind at the most inopportune times. The code remained open at the page about the need to have a second career after retirement. The code had annotations for stories about colleagues who had retired but were now consulting or had high paying jobs. Instead of figuring out what my heart failure and my new disciplined approach to life would allow me to do, I felt guilty that I could not meet the bar that other retirees had set.
I remember one Sunday when a visitor to my church found out what I had done for a living, and insisted that I had to find another career in retirement. So it was not just my own unrealistic code, but the pressure from others that caused me to forget the beauty of just being my own person. I forgot that I needed to allow my own creativity and gifts to find fulfilling endeavors (paid or otherwise) for me. But was it karma that stepped in and delivered a knock-out punch to my dogma?
In a Psychology Today article entitled “What is Karma and Why Should it Matter to Us?” Toni Barnard analyzed Buddha’s views on the subject of Karma. Barnard concluded that “Karma is crucial to our development as wise, caring, and loving human beings because, if we act out of a non-harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again. In other words, we plant a behavioral seed.”
Looking back over my life, I think the seed planted inside me almost always caused me to act out of a non-harmful, even compassionate intention to others. Despite being ambitious, I do not believe any shred of malice motivated my actions. I was just a true, committed overachiever and the only person I was harming was myself. And even if the seed planted in me reaped tons of good karma, it apparently was not enough to stop the harm to myself.
Here is the thought that came to me: Maybe the dogma that ruled me for years was overcome by an enigma that started to occupy my brain cells? I looked at the definitions for enigma and I found two that seemed to describe my situation: puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation.
So my life for a while became the puzzle of how a person who led such a healthy life could develop a damaged heart seemingly out of nowhere. I pondered this enigma for quite a while. But then my doctors kept telling me something that finally stuck. They told me that we may never know what caused my heart damage. So I was forced to conclude that there is no need to waste brain cells on that puzzle.
But I have this new puzzle to focus my brain cells on: What do I want Melanie to be and to do? I find this to be a more rewarding pursuit than looking at work related message on an iPhone at 10:00 p.m.
The bottom line is this. While I am not happy that I will travel with heart failure for as long as I live, I need to settle in and get comfortable with it. I think a healthy alliance with heart failure will form if I give it credit for helping me to slow down, and sand down the rough edges. Maybe heart failure will help me answer the puzzle of what is the next chapter in my life .
I do know that without heart failure, I may well have worked myself to death and failed to complete the puzzle. Heart failure also has helped to give me the proper regard and respect to the creativity that I hope I am spreading with this blog. I love to write, but I had no time to pursue that love as a workaholic.
So I can tell the police to stop looking for the hit and run driver of my dogma. Turns out that the driver (karma, enigma, or a guardian angel) did me a favor!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.