You have to believe we are magic. Nothing can stand in our way. —From Magic, Olivia Newton John, written by John Ferrar
I confess. I went to a psychic once. It was more of a diversion, really, a unique event to throw into the mix one year with my sisters, on Halloween.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I learned about this mysterious, old, African psychic, but I certainly hadn’t envisioned the middle-aged suburban white woman who greeted us in the doorway. She offered us chamomile tea in her disappointingly cookie-cutter kitchen and sat us down in an equally blah living room, bereft of any mystique beyond the magic of a chrome, touch-on desk lamp from the 90s. We divided the (somewhat pricey) hour between the three of us. Not surprisingly Madame Marie did a mediocre dry read on each of us: my sister with the form-fitting skirt, the fiery red hair and the dragon tattoo, my other sister dressed in black, with combat boots and a coffin ring, and me, with my beaded bracelets, hippie blouse and bell-bottom jeans. We might as well have told her our names were Restless Adventure, Grim Reality, and Utopian Daydreams.
The reading revealed predictions both true and false, which took years to prove either way. Having been sucked into Christianity by then, I was slightly worried about our escapade, but neither I nor Madame Marie was struck down by God for having dabbled in witchery (though, admittedly, this would have broken the appalling boredom of the read). Afterwards, Madame Marie went back to her creepily normal afternoon, and my sisters and I went about our Halloween, and that was that.
In Magic 1, I touched on the idea that magical thinking can be just as harmful as religion. But there is a subset of superstitious thought that I find completely non-threatening. It comprises everyone from the casual churchgoer, to the teens attempting to levitate their friend or summon the apparition of Bloody Mary on a sleepover. In-between these extremes falls the Deist who seeks spiritual answers to life, but whose view of god is undefined. She may attend a UU Church to participate in social equality demonstrations. She may even pray or connect with God through meditation, and these actions bring her internal peace and joy. Here also reside the philosophers who wonder about reincarnation, or the agnostics who think this life might not be what it seems.
There are many people who are happy to live in this ambiguous middle place, and I am probably one of them. Anytime I give the universe godly characteristics, I am standing in symbolic solidarity with the hippie who partakes in a puff of nature and gazes into the universe, waiting for the stars to speak. In our group is the elderly woman who never misses Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (but only because her parents used to go, and her grandparents before them). There’s also the teen who decorates her room with gargoyles and lights black candles at midnight, hoping to hear from ghosts, or the edgy artist who buys a Victorian fixer-upper and burns sage in it to drive the ghosts away.
As far back as human history can be traced, there is evidence of belief in the supernatural. It is so commonplace, that we probably don’t notice how prevalent it is even in rational, modern-day society. We say things like, “This place gives me a bad vibe.” We attach personal meaning to external events and call them signs. At times, we base business or romantic decisions on these signs, whether a song that comes on the radio, or the coincidental words of a stranger. And we practice magic for the novelty of it, in the form of an energy crystal from a vacation destination, or a scented candle that promises success. We toss coins in wishing pools. We cross our fingers.
Religion and magic can work, but it is because we are the magic. We are wired to survive and to thrive. Our brains have an incredible capacity to guide us toward healthy choices, peace, financial success, and hope. We can even convince ourselves that we have seen figures or messages in everyday objects. We find ways to externalize thoughts that are already present within us, thereby allowing ourselves to focus and reflect on them in more powerful ways. In our primitive ancestors, belief in divine protection and sacred spaces provided a survival benefit in the form of courage and endurance. Still today, we use magical thought to reaffirm our own positive insights, or to help us process grief, fear, and anxiety. But the truth is, all of that power is already present within us. Perhaps we use the magical props to simplify it for ourselves and help us channel it. I would venture to guess that the more we learn about the brain, the less we will be reliant on magical thought processes as our personal assistants for success.
The fact that our thoughts can create an entire universe of information unique to each of us, can perceive and interpret information real and imagined, and can effectively control our destinies is like magic. We have only begun to tap into the awe-inspiring capabilities of the human brain.
Meanwhile, our creative capacity to envision a supernatural world of gods, demigods, evil beasts and picturesque afterlives has embellished the story of humanity. Though I’m not convinced of any religion or supernatural belief, I would miss both in a world void of them. It would be like an entire world history as endlessly taupe as Madame Marie’s living room. But, as I divulged in last week’s blog post, magical thinking can be harmful. So where is the line? I think I have figured out where it is, and I will share my thoughts next week.
PS: Here are other magical things I’ve done: Carried a lucky charm, gone on ghost hunts, wished on 11:11 (I still do this) or on a falling star, sat through a tarot card reading, prayed and attended church, played with a Ouija board (more on this later), hung a dream catcher, participated in a drum circle, knocked on wood, consulted with “my angels,” flipped a lucky cigarette (back in my wilder days), put out candles with a snuffer so as to not offend the spirits, and said “God bless you,” after a sneeze. (Wink wink!)
Have you ever participated in magical thinking? If so, how?