"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Superstition–We All Do It

When my daughter was little she believed that passing a cemetery without holding her breath was extremely bad luck; and that seeing a black house unless it was followed by two white ones was even worse. Superstition changes with the times, and her generation knew nothing of black cats or walking under ladders, but they were no strangers to warding off evil spirits in their own way.

As in all human behavior there is a range of expression – some people are very superstitious and others are not at all.  There was a woman who walked the block between 114th and 115th Street on Broadway with perfect, precise, military turns.  As she reached the end of the block on the right hand side of the sidewalk, she pivoted like a marine, then walked up the other side.  After years of practice, her gait was measured and sure.  She stepped on no lines or cracks but never looked down, and didn’t seem to tire.  Night or day she was there, marching to her own drummer, eyes fixed, ramrod straight, and oblivious to the fruit stands, bolts of schwarma, taquerias, coffee shops, newspaper kiosks, and Columbia students out for a break.  She was completely nuts – an obsessive compulsive who believed that if she stopped her routine, life would end.

Once they got used to her people in the neighborhood were generous.  They passed her cups of water like spectators at a marathon.  They placed old shoes under the awning of the deli for her to wear when hers wore out.  Although the shoes always disappeared and all merchants kept a watch over them, no one ever saw ‘Block Lady’ take them.  I could only imagine the terror she must have had to keep up such a routine.  She must have had a similar ritual deep into the night when she slept.  Perhaps she slept standing up, first on one leg, then the other; or with her arms crossed left over right; or with her shoes reversed.

In an article in The Atlantic (10.23.13) Stuart Vyse writes about superstition and the varied and unusual forms it takes.  Nancy Reagan, for example, who infamously relied on a horoscope to set the President’s schedule, saw nothing unusual in her actions.  After all, she said, Hollywood people take superstition as a matter of course.  She explained herself in her memoir, My Turn.

Another reason I was open to astrology was that I have spent most of my life in the company of show-business people, where superstitions and other nonscientific beliefs are widespread and commonly accepted. Maybe it's because the entertainment business is so unpredictable and impervious to logic, but starting with my mother, who was an actress, just about every performer I have known has been at least mildly superstitious. For example: It's bad luck to whistle in the dressing room. Never throw your hat on the bed. And never keep your shoes on a shelf that's higher than your head.

Indians, of course, take astrology very, very seriously; and everyone from presidents to coolies rely on it religiously.  Parents of prospective marriage partners routinely have the children’s horoscopes cast and consulted to determine compatibility.  Many a potential bride or groom have been dismissed because of a bad astrological news.  There is nothing strange about consulting an astrologer, and the wife of a Prime Minister would never have to explain the presence of the Merlin-like advisor frequently seen at his side.

Indians consider astrology as a blend of physics and mysticism. Human actions and events are influenced by the position of the planets and the forces they exert, but this system necessarily falls within the larger scope of karma, dharma, and reincarnation.

Nancy Reagan may have seen the hand of God in all this as he banged planetary billiard balls around the universe according to his design, and for her deciphering planetary movements was indeed a spiritual enterprise; but I doubt it.  It was Mars ascendant aligned with Jupiter in the House of Andromeda which was responsible for her husband’s misfortunes.

Lucky charms, rituals, and talismans belong to a different ethos and are far removed from astrology.  They have nothing to do with the configurations of the universe and the movement of celestial bodies.  They are the result of perceived patterns.  I once read of a baseball shortstop back in the 40s who hit .425 over a two week span, the exact time period during which he wore a new batting glove.  It must be the glove responsible for his good fortune, he reasoned, and even if it wasn’t, why take a chance?  He not only wore the batting glove every time at the plate, but as his hitting streak continued, he began to sleep with it under his pillow.  When he inevitably slumped back to his career average of .260 despite wearing the glove, he did not dismiss the superstition at all, but believed that the glove indeed helped him to excel, if only for a short time.

There was a television series in the 50s called Twilight Zone, and one of the scariest episodes was called The Monkey’s Paw. A farmer who found the paw read a scrawled note that said that it gave him three wishes.  He squandered the first on a new tractor and the second on a few bushels of corn; but then he and his wife decided to get serious for the third, and they wished for their dead son to come back to life.  He had been caught in the blades of a thresher, and sliced to death.  One night they heard an uneven, thumping walk and then a knock on the door.  It was the dead son, alive again but as chopped up and mangled as the day he fell under the thresher. 

The shortstop’s glove had the same magical powers as the monkey’s paw.

I never thought that I was superstitious until I started to travel to the most benighted places on earth; and for years I waited in fetid, mosquito-infested, chaotic African baggage claim areas waiting for my luggage.  The chances of it arriving were not good, given the inefficiency and corruption of the ground staff in Luanda, N’Djamena, or Ouagadougou. However, I found that crossing my fingers on both hands improved my chances of getting my bags; but the practice only worked if I waited the right amount of time.  If I crossed them too early when the first bags came tumbling out of the chute, it would not work; or at the very least it would diminish the potency of the charm.  I had to wait until at least half of the waiting passengers had gotten their luggage.  Then it worked.

Many sports teams have collective superstitions.  No one on a baseball team for example, will never mention the fact that their pitcher is throwing a no-hitter. Discipline is strict, inflexible, and absolutely enforced.  Since very few pitchers ever throw a no-hitter, you would think that this peculiar prohibition would fall by the wayside; but it is as universally applied as ever.  If it works sometimes, baseball players reason, that it might work the next time.

Gambling has the most superstitions, perhaps because it is a game of chance.  There is nothing you can physically do to influence the draw of the cards or the throw of the dice; so many resort to strange practices:

The most popular theory of dice-throwing holds that the number rolled is positively correlated with the velocity of the throw. A soft touch brings a low number; a hard throw brings a high one. Other methods of “controlling” the dice include taking one’s time between rolls and “talking to the dice.” This last strategy is often employed at the moment the dice are released, when one shouts out the desired number.

Again, if it works sometimes, then it might work the next time; so why not try it.  You have absolutely nothing to lose.

Vyse reports that players and gamblers feel that a superstition can be boosted by mental energy.  Citing the work of James Henslin (1967), Vyse writes:

To retain control over the dice, the shooter had to "take it easy" and "take his time." Henslin pointed out that this view of confidence is very similar to one frequently promoted in competitive sports. Athletes are told not to "get shook," because a lack of confidence would interfere with their self-control and ability to concentrate.

Women are much more influenced by superstition than men:

A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. For example, the 2007 Gallup poll found that women were over twice as likely to be bothered by staying on the 13th floor of a hotel (18 percent for women versus 8 percent for men) and almost three times as likely to ask for a room on a different floor (14 percent of women versus 5 percent of men) Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups.

No one can explain this difference without getting into hot water.  Women traditionally have been thought to be more ‘right brain’, sympathetic, and perceptive than men, quicker to pick up subtle behavioral clues and to sense ‘vibes’ in social scenes.  While the notion that women are hardwired this way has been largely dismissed, most critics agreed that historically women were socially restricted, deprived of equal education, and unable to develop the same critical, analytical, and cognitive skills as men.  They had to develop other ways of negotiating their way in a complex world. Even as social equality has become a reality in the West, women may still retain vestiges of the old way of thinking.

To superstition, astrology, and luck, one must add magical realism. Latin American authors in particular have been given to this blend of the real and the imagined.  Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are works of magical realism, and the playgoer is asked – and willingly complies – with the poet’s request to leave your reason at the door.  Animist religions believed that spirits resided in trees and mountains, and that God himself ruled with thunder and lightning.  The Catholic Mass is as magical as you can get, for Christ himself is thought to be called down to the altar at the moment of consecration. 

Prayer, too, is a form of superstition. A friend of mine a number of years ago was a member of a religious cult which believed that Armageddon was nigh and the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.  The spiritual leader of the church even gave the day of destruction.  When that day came and went, the leader was undaunted and was in fact ebullient and proud. Prayer, she said, had worked.  Prayer postponed the fiery end of the world. Who could argue with that logic? 

As with any other superstition, if prayer works once, it could easily work again, so why not continue it.  If you pray for an ‘A’ in math and you get it, then you might as well pray for high grades in English.  If God chooses not to listen, He must have his own reasons; but that is no reason why He shouldn’t listen next time.

In other words, whether we admit it or not, we live in a world of superstition, magic, fantasy, and hopeful illusion.  Even the most painfully logical of us admit to crossing our fingers or avoiding the black cat on the walk. What is surprising is that superstition – even in our hyper-logical, data-driven age – is so prevalent.  My guess is that reality will never be enough to satisfy us, and what harm does it do to blow on the dice when times get tough?

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