Human beings are pattern-forming animals, a trait that has served us both well and badly since caveman days. Seeing a pattern in the behavior of an enemy tribe could lead to strategic planning countering a very real threat. Seeing a pattern in the bad behavior of some of our own tribe and a subsequent major damaging storm might lead to false conclusions about the anger of the gods and the consequential banishment of the supposedly offending tribe members.
We are all prey to superstitions, even ludicrous ones. Some have a basis in wisdom (don’t walk under a ladder), while others are just loony (step on a crack and break your mother’s back). Even worse, unless strictly watched and dealt with, a superstition can take on an amazing permanence in future behavior, even if irrational under any analysis. Playing Blackjack at a casino I sometimes notice that my luck seems to vary depending on how I stack my chips. This, of course, is nonsense. There is no possible causal connection between the two, but I have to take myself sternly in hand, deliberately violate the supposed chip-stacking rule, and get out from under the irrationality of it all, annoyed and embarrassed by this phenomenon.
I have become intolerant of superstitions, mine (which I quash immediately when observed) and others (about which I sometimes make comments that I almost always immediately regret). Here’s why. All my life, since I was quite little, I have always wanted to know what is true and what is not, and then live my life accordingly. Life is hard even armed with correct information, and no one needs the baggage of beliefs that are obviously wrong. And, alas, I’m impatient with those who aren’t similarly oriented. How can any rational human being—including many who I love and admire—believe in patent nonsense? Surely they need to have this pointed out, I stupidly say to myself, only to be proven wrong almost at once. No one is any the better for my having spoken up, which I then regret and promise to do no more.
So here I am, writing a blog about superstitions. “Stop that!” I want to say to my readers, knowing it won’t do the slightest bit of good. I get angry at people who believe in jinxes. For example, watching basketball I am peeved when the announcer says to the color commentator that a player on the foul line missed a basket because the announcer was just bragging about how good the player was at shooting free throws. One of my best friends, intelligent as human beings come, was at a professional baseball game, sitting in the stands and eating a hot dog when his team started doing amazing things on the playing field. Half joking, he pointed out to the fans around him that this had all started when he first bit into the hot dog. Immediately there was an outcry for him not to finish the “lucky” hot dog. People were genuinely worried about this, and he himself seemed to believe it! The legend of the lucky hot dog survives in his mind to this day.
A lot of the patterns we supposedly see are just coincidences. I hear people—intelligent people—saying that they don’t believe in coincidences. What? They don’t exist? Of course they do, even very bizarre ones. With billions (trillions?) of things on planet earth going on around us every minute, some are bound to align and produce jaw-dropping results. The ordinary and likely result simply can’t be what always happens; fluky things will certainly occur, whether it’s the storm of the century that wipes out a city or the skydiver whose chute does not open but somehow survives a thousand foot fall with only minor injuries. When the Andria Doria collided with the Swedish ship Stockholm in 1956, the bow of the latter plowed into the Andrea Doria, and emerged after a few moments with a 14 year-old girl and her bed, both plucked unharmed from her cabin and transferred to the forecastle of the other ship. Amazing? Yes. The hand of fate or God or something like that? No. Just an improbable coincidence. She was lucky? Yes, but her stepfather and half-sister who were in the same cabin perished along with 44 other unfortunate human beings, and fate/God/whatever was certainly unkind to them. Was she being rewarded while the others were punished? Perhaps some people thought so, but such judgments are nothing more than unthinking cruelty. What happened to this girl was just chance, like winning a super lottery. In every lottery, no matter how big the odds, some lucky soul wins while others tear up their tickets. The result isn’t a matter of reward for conduct (other than buying the ticket); it’s simply a product of the game and happens every lottery, time after time after time. Thanking God in these circumstances seems to imply that God endorses gambling for one person and condemns it for the rest, unlikely conduct for a fair deity.
Or take the supposed Sports Illustrated jinx. According to this jumbled thinking if an athlete/team appears on the cover of the magazine that means doom; their superior spot is about to disappear. Since this does happen over and over again, a false pattern is perceived: be on the cover of SI and watch your career take a nose dive! Why is this wrong? Because the reason someone appears on the cover in the first place is in recognition that they are at the top of their game doing something extraordinary, resulting in fame. But success at that level can’t go on long (with, of course, some exceptions as statistical analysis would also predict), and by the time the magazine comes out, almost all of that cover greatness has given way to more mortal status.
My advice: if you are the slave of superstitions and false patterns, get hold of yourself. Life is too short to be governed by the wrong rules.
There, I said it. Now let me hear from you. My email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013