Karmic Hangovers and Chronic Ignorance

Tonight, we went out in New York and as usual we were unable to get a taxi cab, and even the cabs we managed to flag down were snobby about what fares they wanted to accept. As a last resort, we ended up taking the PATH train back to Hoboken and a taxi from there, which we also shared with a young girl. I had a most illuminating conversation with a rather misguided taxi driver, which is what actually inspired me to write this article.

It started off with the driver praising the Lord for the fact that he has not been sick for a single day in the last five years. He went on to proclaim that if one thanks God every morning and loves one’s neighbour by helping and caring for them, then this should protect one from afflictions such as sickness. It was at this point that I decided to speak up. I’m really not a fan of conflict, but there are things that I simply don’t agree with. One thing I do believe in is karma – i.e. be nice to your neighbour and your neighbour will be nice to you (even if it’s not the very same neighbour you were nice to in the first place, and “neighbour” being used in the sense of fellow man or woman), otherwise known as “what goes around comes around”. What I cannot concur with however is the fact that if you are sick this must mean that you are “unchristian” and not very nice to your fellow humans. I’m sorry, but I think that is absolute bloody bullshit, and that is undoubtedly what he was inferring.

I don’t talk about my religious affiliations much and I am not a practicing Christian, although I have been in the past. What I do believe in however is being good to others, doing my utmost to improve the lives of others and giving back when others are good to me – paying it forward if you will. I explained to the cabbie that I myself am ill and suffer from an autoimmune disease that runs in my family. He went on to ask me if I wake up and thank God every day. I told him I do not because I don’t believe in God (whilst this isn’t strictly true as I’m an agnostic, he pissed me off so I felt like being antagonistic). I went on to explain that I do my best to be good to others and that I don’t feel that I deserve to be sick. I also don’t believe that I have to be religious to be a good person. I told him that, like in the Bible where God presented Jesus with trials, humans are faced with trials and it is up to us how we deal with them – whether we use them to improve ourselves and learn from them and make ourselves a better and a stronger person. The young girl in the cab touched my heart when she got out and turned round and told me she is sorry that I am sick and that she doesn’t think the taxi driver meant to offend me (I had explained to him that his attitude is offensive).

I must say that this whole episode very much reminds me of an article I read about former English football manager and player Glen Hoddle who offended a lot of people with some rather controversial remarks on why people are born disabled in an 1999 interview with Matt Dickinson of The Times newspaper:
“You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap. You have to look at things that happened in your life and ask why. It comes around.”

Whilst I stated above that I believe in karma – i.e. what you give, you may well get back, I do not believe in karma “hangovers” from another lifetime. I also don’t believe that people are born disabled or sick simply because they “deserve” it. This seems both antiquated and Victorian to me and reminds me very much of the Flagellants of the Middle Ages who whipped themselves to shreds during the Plague years in the hope that God would have mercy on their sins and salvage them of this dreaded disease. In fact, all their religious fanaticism served to do was to spread the Black Death from village to village as the groups of men travelled the countryside.

In my opinion, what it comes down to is this: it seems incredibly easy for those who are not sick or have never been sick to judge those who are and tell them that they have either brought it on themselves, e.g. by not being religious, or that they are not doing enough. And come to think of it: doesn’t the Bible say something about “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?

Whilst I like my personal trainer and I know that he has a good heart, it is blatantly obvious to me that he doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be sick. When I told him in frustration that I am doing well on my current medication and not feeling as good as I should be, he promptly told me that I should change doctors. Little did he know that it’s simply not that easy. I was already on doctor number three at the time and am planning on sticking with her for the moment, but people who are not sick seem to think that there is some kind of magic formula to getting well. He also told me that because I’m obviously working on it, things are going to improve.

Those of us who are sick would like to be optimistic, but on the other hand we are also realistic and we know that there is a slight chance that things might not get better. We know this because we have held high hopes in the past that have sometimes been dashed, and so it becomes hard to retain hope, although I really believe that it is in our best interest to do so. I don’t want to come across as negative or pessimistic, but there are days when I despair and I simply wish that those who are not in my situation would show a little more empathy and a little less judgement.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What kind of judgemental attitudes have you encountered with regard to your illness(es)? How did you react to such comments? What do you believe?

By Sarah Downing

My name is Sarah. I was born and grew up in England and currently live in Düsseldorf, Germany, with my fiancé Corey and my cuddly cat Biscuit. I work as a translator and writer for my own company Aardwolf Text Services (www.aardwolf.de) and I love vintage clothes and music, as well as singing karaoke.


  1. I love that you addressed this issue. I also have two autoimmune diseases, and have often wondered what I did to deserve being so sick and unable to live a normal life like everyone else. I have often mentioned to my husband that I must’ve been the worst person in my previous life. I know that in this life I have tried very hard to be good to everyone I meet and pay it forward whenever I’m able. We shouldn’t let closed minded/ignorant people make us feel less worthy of happiness and health than anyone else. Sending positive/healthy vibes your way, my dear!

    1. Thank you, Tricia. Whilst I am not a disbeliever in past lives, I do not believe that any sins from our past lives are carried over to our present life like rollover minutes of a cell phone contract:-). I’m not even sure that things always happen for a reason, although we as humans are often so desperately in search of one. Sometimes it’s just about how we deal with what life dishes out. Please, please don’t beat yourself up about being sick.

      When I first read the article on Glen Hoddle, I felt that this would be an interesting topic to tackle, but it wasn’t until tonight that I felt ready to write something. As soon as we got in from paying the taxi driver, I sat down and wrote my article whilst it was still fresh in my mind.

      Sending positive and healthy vibes to you too because you deserve to be healthy and happy and, like you told me, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!



  2. Hi Sarah Downing you are very articulate and love your work. I subscribed to your website. Regarding karma what do you believe happens to the accumulated and unpaid or unpunished bad things of the past when we die? You believe in rebirth but with a fresh start. To wipe the slate clean sounds nice but I would think not. You have to pay for your sins as the saying goes. There is no escape from this. To be born with a disability does not have to infer you are being punished for previous life however it doesnt rule it out and would be better than being demoted to an animal perhaps! Maybe its about a lesson you are to learn that you just didnt get last time? Its about evolving. In Buddhism there is Law of Nature, its very logical. Part of the reason we keep getting reborn as human is our unwise unconscious attachments, cravings, aversions and ignorance that create Sankharas. These mental impurities/conditioning fuel the cycle of rebirth, Samsara. Being a human is not the pinnacle of being a fully evolved being? Its just something to consider.

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thank you for the lovely compliment and good for you for subscribing:-).

      That is a difficult question you present me with and naturally I also thought about the Buddhist ideology of karma when I was writing this. But to me it just seems too simple to say that everyone who is sick brought this on themselves because they were bad in a past life. I also believe that karma can often come around in this lifetime. I’m not sure how much being chronically ill will teach you or improve you as a person because most of us don’t even remember our past lives unless we subject ourselves to past life regression. Not everyone becomes a better person due to adversities placed in their path of life. As I wrote above, it’s all about how we personally choose to deal with these adversities. Sometimes clouds have a silver lining and sometimes not and sometimes they have one, but we can’t even see it. Of all the chronically ill people I have known, some deal with their illness better than others.

      I’m not ruling out that there are perhaps some who don’t get bitten in the ass by what they did in past lives (in various different ways), but it seems awfully unfair to say that everyone who is sick or endures misfortune in this life does so because they deserve it (not that I think you are saying that, but I’m just trying to make a point). Some people believe in old souls and new souls, so how would you explain those new souls who are sick if this were the case? As I said above, I think sometimes we are presented with challenges to make us a better person, but this is not necessarily a karmic hangover.

      I’d be super interested to hear what writer Toni Bernhard has to say on this topic as she is chronically ill and a practicing Buddhist.



  3. You know that taxi driver has a “works mentality” which is actually a very WRONG belief. For those who actually seek to follow Christ should be behaving like Christ did! One can see how Jesus lived by reading the New Testament. Christ NEVER said any such things to people who were sick, and for someone who supposedly follows Christ he is NOT really following Him at all! These types of Christians are NOT following the REAL Gospel. The real Gospel is one of GOOD NEWS. Christ always reached out to the poor and the sick. He helped the sick by healing them and He fed the poor and encouraged His Disciples TO DO LIKEWISE, so don’t be fooled into thinking this person is actually a TRUE Disciple of Christ.
    They are actually following a religion of their OWN making! So if you want to know how a true follower of Christ lives their life then look at how Christ lived and then you will know.
    I’m really VERY SORRY how this man treated you, for his words and actions were TOTALLY WRONG!!!! Instead of judging all sick people he should reach out to them with Compassion and also Pray for them to get well, for that is what Jesus would do! So don’t be fooled by smooth talk next time! Actions speak louder than words! Sincerely, Anne

    1. Thank you, Anne, for your comment. First off, I wasn’t fooled by this taxi driver’s “smooth” talk because I knew it was neither smooth nor correct. I may have mentioned that I am not a practicing Christian, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t know extensive amounts about the Bible. I studied Religious Studies at school and did scripture exams as a child, so I’m more than aware of how Jesus treated the poor, women and sick (the outcasts of society at this time) – a whole lot better than many people treat them today! I countered the taxi driver’s arguments with arguments I know from the Bible, but he was going off on one – too keen to preach his version of the word of God.

      I must say that his comments did not surprise me because both my husband and I commented to each other that being Christian does not necessarily make you a nice person. This is because we’ve both known plenty of Christians who are absolute hypocrites. And that’s part of why I am not a practicing Christian. For me it is either all or nothing and because I don’t agree with everything in the Christian faith, I’d rather not call myself one. But what I do believe in is being good to others, and if that’s what Jesus preaches (and I know he does), then call my actions Christian.

      This guy was a truly misguided jerk and the sad part is that when we started giving him Biblical arguments he didn’t even understand them. Ultimately, he’s not the only one who thinks this way though, and whilst I knew he was wrong and that Christ or nobody who acts like a true Christian would act this way, it’s still upsetting, isn’t it? I’m not sure I even want people’s compassion really because that almost sounds like pity, but what I do want is people’s respect rather than being told that I brought this on myself. I said I don’t like conflict, but I am no stranger to speaking out when I think that people like this taxi driver are totally wrong and injust.

      And yes – actions speak louder than words – I could not agree more!!



  4. The one thing that makes chronic illnesses so hard for outsiders to accept or deal with neutrally is their chronic nature. This may even make it hard for us, as people who are chronically ill, to come to terms with how we are. After some time it can easily feel like it’s always been this way, and you might forget what it was like not to be ill, or wonder if you’re asking for the impossible when you try to get better. But, as far as outsiders are concerned, if something has been going on for years then why haven’t you gotten used to it by now?! The thing is that for the most part they don’t mean to be rude. They’re just ignorant. While it can feel like a slap in the fact when we have to face this ignorance, I think the healthiest way to go may be patience and radical acceptance. By all means educate those who need to understand (your boss for example) but be aware that not everyone will be able or willing to understand. We just need to stand taller.

    1. Dear Annette,

      Thank you very much for your inspiring comment that really does make a lot of sense. It always is really hard to come to terms with such a potentially permanent change.

      I agree that, frustrating as it is, we can’t expect everyone to understand as not everyone is capable of empathy. I also agree that some people don’t mean anything bad by their ignorant comments. My trainer will probably never truly get it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he has a good heart and genuinely cares and tries his best to be supportive.

      Patience and acceptance are so important here. And yes, we need to stand tall, which becomes easier when we mutually support each other:-).



  5. I am so glad you decided to write about this. As a mother of a child on the Autism Spectrum I have run into many insensitive people who are to quick to judge.
    I also suffer from several “invisible” illnesses. People see me as being healthy and feeling great all the time. This is only because on the outside I look fine. I have heard snide comments and rumors of people thinking I am a hypochondriac or just looking for attention. And it’s an awful feeling to hear these things when you have medical documentation and on several medications for these chronic illnesses.
    I am also an Agnostic (but Spiritual – if that makes sense)- I also do not believe that people are suffering from illnesses or living with a disability because they were bad in a past life.
    I do believe in “what comes around goes around” Karma in the here an now not from a past life.
    I am a wonderful person and wouldn’t hurt a fly so I question myself with my belief in “what comes around goes around” because I haven’t done anything awful in this life to come back to me.
    My way of dealing with people and my situation is believing that everything happens for a reason and things in life are lessons learned.I ignore and try to brush off what people say and find peace in my hobbies and surrounding myself with people who love me and my son without passing judgement.
    It hurts when people judge but I feel badly for these people because they are the ones carrying around issues. These types of people who are ignorant,hurtful,and to quick to make comments have a problem withing themselves. This may be their own insecurities and uneasiness on how to deal with the situation presented to them.
    This man was rude and insensitive obviously not a true Christian. As I mentioned earlir I am an Agnostic but have a spiritual side to me as well, not sure if that makes sense but that’s my choice and what I believe. I know a lot of Christian people as I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for a short period of time. I can defintly say that a lot of Christians are hypocrites and their choice of religion doesn’t make them a nice, understanding or honest. I also have people in my life whom are Atheists and they are the most wonderful, thoughtful, loving, considerate and non-judgemnetal people.
    Never judge a book by it’s cover is my motto.

    1. Hi Cindy,

      It saddens me that people are so cruel to judge you and your wonderful child. They are being very ignorant and unfair and I know what a gift he is to you!:-).

      I’m also sorry to hear about the judgement you yourself have been subject to. There is a website you might enjoy that is very popular among those of us with “invisible illnesses”:
      The last thing we need is people judging, making assumptions or giving advice we didn’t even ask for. Sometimes it gets all too much and you want to cocoon yourself away from the rest of the world! And yes, I agree that these people oftentimes have a problem with themselves – be it insecurity or downright bad manners and bad upbringing.

      Thank you for sharing your beliefs with us. I can relate to a lot of them, as you will see from what I wrote in the article. I too often feel that things happen for a reason and am a great believer in finding the silver lining and in turning the negative into the positive. Often, it works too!

      I think you seem to have a very healthy attitude. I know you have friends and family who care about you deeply and I am glad that you are also able to take solace in your hobbies and creative talents.

      Like you, I have a spiritual side, but it’s not so much related to Christianity. So yes, I do understand that.

      I think we should judge each other not by our religions, but quite simply by who we are and by how we treat others:-).

      Have a lovely night and hug that wonderful kid of yours from me!:-) (if he likes hugs that is – I know about the whole thing with autistic children and hugging … a whole different topic:-))


  6. I find it strange that someone would say we must pay for our sins as if they are Christian. It is said in many religious circles that a man named Jesus Christ already did that, in fact he died for all of our sins. So the good book says. I have always helped those who needed help when ever I can, both humans and animals, but I have a chronic illness. To say it is my karma insults and negates all I have done and am now doing. I believe stuff happens. Period. And it is a matter of what you do with your situation that is important. Chronically ill people could be nasty human beings because they suffer so, but I find the opposite to be the case. To know true happiness one must first know what suffering is. The chronically ill certainly have the struggling down and so most know how to grab onto each moment of joy as it comes. And most also want to help others to do that too. I find those who cannot empathize with how it feels to be chronically ill cannot really know how important each and every moment of joy in this life is. And that is sad for them.

    1. Hi Joi,

      Thank you for commenting. I agree very much with what you are saying. Like yourself, I have done my best to help others and yet I’m not a Christian. Add to that that I also have a chronic illness … And so like you I find it insulting to say that this is due to bad karma or due to me being a non-believer. Like you, I’m also a stronger believer of making the best of the cards we are dealt. And like you I’ve also known many chronically ill people to become even more empathic and caring as a result of their illness. It certainly does make you appreciate life more:-).

      Thanks again for commenting and keep up the good work!:-)


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