Niagara Gazette

November 24, 2013

SINGER: Superstition and its limitations

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Superstition was the theme of a Stevie Wonder hit of the ‘70s, and while the song is now an oldie, superstition still thrives in our world of the 21st century.

And I’m here to tell you plain and simple that it’s dumb! Useless. Silly. Childish. And that like many of you, I’m superstitious!

Psychiatrists have a fancier term, magical thinking, for the rituals people repetitively perform, and which stem from childhoods where stress overwhelmed them. Hence these practiced moves that are somehow supposed to ward off neuroses going back to an earlier age.

Except such rituals (despite high-minded defense of them from such as Lévi-Strauss in “The Savage Mind”) don’t work! They simply don’t ... And yet you see hockey players touching the net or their goalie’s pads with their stick before games, or athletes in various sports putting on uniforms a certain way, and then there are those luxuriant playoff beards which can’t be trimmed!

To be sure many of you knock on wood, avoid walking under ladders, or throw salt over your shoulders, among common superstitions one could name. But I still think “childish” remains the best description for such behavior. I guess “hopeful,” too — like, “I need a good deal, so please, ritual, help give it to me.”

In the 18th century Enlightenment, based on principles of the scientific revolution produced by Galileo et al., philosophers hoped we could dispense with such childish fears and “walk without (mental) crutches,” as one put it. But even a Voltaire, Jefferson, or Gibbon must have engaged in such behavior from time to time, despite being part of the so-called Age of Reason.

That period also went after heavy-duty religion, and you all know what atheists think of people beseeching God via prayer. And yet the old adage has it (with some truth) that there are no atheists in the foxholes of war.

I can’t see a problem in saying “God bless” to people, or in praying within long-established religions. But it’s equally true that religion over the centuries did help explain or provide soothing for a prankish universe where death rates were high and unpredictable, and life was frequently Hobbes’ nasty, brutish, and short.

However, it’s also true that religious childhoods have often provided a bedrock, guidelines, and discipline for future adults, even when some of that religious training was later altered or diminished in maturity.

So let’s separate established religion and superstition and get back to the latter — as childish, silly, and useless! I often berate myself for such rituals, because they presuppose that I’m so important, and also that this door or whatever really feels my every need or desire.

A charitable devil’s advocate view (I received from a friend) has it that we’re all quite helpless in this big world of ours. And that by doing all these perhaps stupid things we’re trying (as in the adage, “God helps those who help themselves”) to give ourselves a boost, an assist. We just don’t have a lot of control over our environment. And plain rationalism has its limits. This way, it seems, one has a chance to be safe, or the hockey player, I guess, to score a couple badly-needed goals that night.

And what if the one time you didn’t touch wood or throw salt over your shoulder the roof subsequently falls in, or you lose your home in a Colorado flood or an Iowa tornado? And you think it’s your fault (which it isn’t)? In sum, people who are truly superstitious are frightened.

And I guess we all congratulate ourselves that others go down that route more heavily than we do. Check out certain stores in tourist towns, full of pricey, multi-colored rocks you can clutch, and which supposedly bring one peace and other desirable benefits.

But there are some things superstition simply can’t do. One is to increase your odds of making it over the Falls in a barrel, which I certainly hope you won’t try, even if you previously touched wood!

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.