Saturday, May 05, 2007


More on Magical Thinking

The promised long post:

Erich Vieth, of the Dangerous Intersection blog, posted about his “trip to the neighborhood psychic store” with his daughters recently. His posts are always quite thoughtful, and this one is no different; however, this particular post left me feeling as though the only enlightened people on earth are those who don’t fall for all that woo-woo stuff like tarot readings, astrology, psychic readings, aura photography, Reiki, and etc. Well, okay . . . .

Let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? I have long been interested in the various woo-woo aspects of life. In elementary school I was checking books out of the library on ESP and my brother and I would conduct tests, one sending thoughts, the other trying to receive them. The results were inconclusive.

My dad, a man who has a chemistry degree, was forever watching programs on the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot and alien encounters. As Catholics, my mom and her mother were equally entranced with the woo-woo. (If you believe in transubstantiation, and a man literally rising from the dead, I think you’re a shoe-in for woo-woo belief.) There was a crystal ball in the house that my sister and I used to try to read. Never could get that thing to work. There was also a deck of cards in the game closet with a witch tending a cauldron and fortune-type sayings on the other side. I now have these cards at my desk.

In high school I went through my astrology phase. I still have the first astrology book that I bought; it’s all marked up with my chart and the charts of friends. I also sprung for an “official” astrology reading, a print-out showing the planets in their various houses and the conjunctions between the planets at the time of my birth. It’s from the American Astrological Association and, if I remember correctly, it cost me the unholy sum of $11 (it was definitely under $20), which was a lot of money for a broke high schooler. During my high school Research Paper class, I wrote a paper called “Astrology and Eleanor Roosevelt: Do They Stand on Common Ground?” Why did I pair Eleanor Roosevelt with astrology? She and I share the same birthday.

Since that time I’ve dabbled in other forms of the woo-woo: aura reading, feng shui, angel readings, Chinese astrology, looking for signs from the universe, meditation, the power of positive thought, reflexology, homeopathy, acupuncture (you might quibble that this is not woo-woo, but come on . . . stick a bunch of needles in your skin and get well?), numerology, dream interpretation, Reiki, and tarot readings. I own two tarot decks and made myself a pack of angel cards. I’ve discovered that a great-aunt, my great-grandmother’s sister, read crystal ball, the very one I had played with as a kid.

This is where I’ve come from, a life filled with magical thinking. And it continues, sometimes in ways that are out of my control . . . .

This past year, two women entered the museum where I work and asked if they could find an obituary. That’s not out of the ordinary, as we assist people with genealogy and obits are a great source of family info. I asked for a name and date, so I could find what they were looking for. One of the women was a little evasive at first. She said she didn’t know a full name or date. All she had was a first name. Finding an obituary using just a first name is almost impossible, and I indicated as much. The other woman, a younger sister of the first, started explaining what had led to their request. It seems that the older woman’s three-year-old son was seeing someone, a woman with a damaged face, and this woman, who had told the boy her first name, was directing him to follow her out of the house. No one else could see this woman. Sometimes the boy indicated that the apparition was in the house. Other times, she was outside beckoning him into the street.

The boy’s mother was a bit sheepish in describing the boy’s behavior. Whenever he mentioned the woman’s name, she would try not to lead him on in conversation and she never brought up the woman’s name herself. She didn’t want to encourage something that was a figment of his imagination. Unfortunately, her son kept seeing the apparition and was doing whatever he could to get out of the house in order to be with her. Extra locks were put on the door to keep the boy in, but the situation wasn’t resolving itself, so the women decided to try to find answers. They wondered, because of the apparition’s damaged face, if there had been some sort of accident involving a woman with this particular first name.

Deep breath. Now, at this point I could have told the woman that I thought she was full of it and left it at that. I’ve never experienced ghosts or apparitions and am completely neutral as to their existence. That means that while I’ve never seen a ghost, I’m not going to deride someone else for claiming to have done so. Regardless of whether this apparition was real, it was obvious that this boy was seeing something and it was having very real consequences, so I decided I would do what I could, all the while thinking this was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack.

I entered the first name and our county into the state’s death database and came up with three hits, which was strange in and of itself. Only three people with this first name had ever died in our county? No way. Of the three, one was quite young. With death date in hand, I went to the newspapers and found the obit. Turns out this woman had died in a car accident that had killed several other people in a spot not far from where the mother and son lived. Coincidentally, she had the same last name as the mother and son, was the same age when she died as the mother standing before me, and had a young son with the same first initial as the boy now seeing her.

The eerie, prickly feeling that overcame me at the time still comes over me today when I think about it. I don’t know how to explain this situation and I don’t even want to try. It simply is what it is.

It’s very easy to think of people who believe in magical thinking (like me) as crazy, overly-susceptible crackpots. We aren’t living in the real world. By golly, if it can’t be proven with a double-blind test, why it simply isn’t so! Unfortunately, a good share of life is subjective and difficult to explain. We cannot drag that three-year-old into a laboratory and prove what he is or isn’t seeing. (By the way, since when has life ever mimicked a laboratory setting, except in a laboratory?) That doesn’t mean his visions weren’t having an effect; they were. It doesn’t mean that somehow we’re “falling” for something when we believe such things. Most of the people I know who believe in or have experienced the woo-woo, are not extreme about it. We chalk such things up to the “Very Interesting” category of life and fit them into our personal schemas without having a need to have them fully explained. My husband once had an out-of-body experience and he is extraordinarily skeptical about most woo-woo phenomena.

Those who attack the world view of magical thinkers are trying to negate some very personal experiences. That disdain is not useful, even if some of us go off the deep end periodically. (What happens when you force someone to let go of something? They hang on tighter, right?)

Rather than approach these various woo-woo subjects as things that must be explicitly proven or chucked as utter hogwash, why not question the origins of them? For example, Ben, who posted this comment on Erich’s Vieth’s post, said, “Why are there only 12 zodiac signs, and how the heck can even ONE person have the EXACT SAME horoscope as me, let along 1/12 of the population?” Why, indeed? Why are there twelve months in a year? Why are there twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac? Why are there twelve inches to a foot? Why are there two twelve-hour segments in a full day? Why is the number twelve so important to measurement in human history?

As for the veracity of astrology, I think the origins of the system have some pretty solid roots. The sun and moon have an effect on earthly life; why is it such a stretch to believe that the other planets in our Solar System might also affect us? Isn’t it amazing to think that our ancestors recognized these effects (in fact, they were probably much more guided by them than we are) and codified them into a system to show us our similarities? Even if the predictive functions are useless, this is something worth noting.

Tarot cards as a future-divining tool are derided in Erich’s post, yet they have another purpose. They can be used by an individual to tap inner resources in solving a sticky problem. That’s how I use them, anyway. In addition, they are fascinating artifacts from the standpoint of the artwork and the use of archetypes. Once again, here is something of intense complexity developed by our forbearers.

I can’t go without mentioning the Akashic Records, which were also brought up in Erich’s post. I’ve talked about this before, but for those who don’t know, the Akashic Records are supposedly the record of all thoughts, words, and deeds of life written in the ether. Don’t ask me where this ether is kept, or how this stuff gets recorded, but someone imagined this thing they called “Akashic Records” and, I’m telling you, if the Internet isn’t the best example of making this idea real, I don’t know what is.

Ultimately, looking at the origins of the woo-woo will lead us to wondering why human beings are driven to magical thinking. On an evolutionary level, there was probably some advantage to our species in doing so, but don’t ask me to prove that. I don’t have my laboratory or double-blind studies set up.

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