√ I was walking with a friend and when we passed some construction, my friend started to walk under a ladder which was blocking the sidewalk. I grabbed her arm and pulled her around it.
“I didn’t know you were superstitious,” she said.
“Because I’m not,” I said. “It’s just dangerous. It could collapse on you. Something could fall on your head.”
Later, I thought about it. There was no one on the ladder, and nothing which could have fallen on her head. So, why had I reacted so instinctively? Was it superstition? Am I superstitious and don’t know it?
On one hand, I don’t care whether 20 black cats cross my path, I have never tossed salt over my shoulder, and I wouldn’t dream of spitting on money before I paid for a lottery ticket. On the other hand, when I’m buying that lottery ticket, I often pick numbers that mean something to me, like my children’s birthdays, or my anniversary, as if invoking them will bring me luck. Isn’t that superstition? Or does it become a superstition only when you can’t NOT do it? And what’s wrong with being superstitious, anyway? Why is being superstitious one of those things we don’t like to admit to?
I started asking around, and found a lot of people, who, like me, say they aren’t superstitious at all, but have some “habits” which tell another tale. A woman I know, before she discards a pair of shoes, first cuts the toes off them, because she wants to make sure no one “walks in her shoes.” (This person has had hard times, so it is a kind gesture as well as a superstitious one.) Someone else says if you are having clothing altered while the garment is on you, you have to chew on a piece of thread. I looked this one up. It was to prove you were alive and not being sewn into a shroud. I looked up “knock wood” too, and discovered that it referred to touching the wood of Christ’s cross for luck. A Jewish version of that is when the Torah is paraded around the synagogue and the faithful reach over to touch the Book. These are handed down from generation to generation and most of us do them reflexively, not superstitiously. When we say “bless you” to someone’s sneeze, it is to be polite, not to ward off the evil spirit the sneeze had expelled from re-entering the body.
Other superstitions seem rooted in particular families. One person I know said before her family went on any trip, they all had to sit down together at the table before leaving the house. My mother used to call them stupid-stitions, but she had some, too. Whenever I made an ugly face or stuck my tongue out she’d shudder and say “Stop! It’ll freeze that way!” And at the end of every summer at the beach, my mother walked the shoreline one last time and with great ceremony, picked up a “lucky” stone to keep in her pocket all winter. I am sure it was an expression of my mother’s fear that something would prevent her from returning next year, and of course it made no sense at all, but it made her feel good. Whenever I visit a beach, even if is for a day, I find my “lucky” stone, too. I don’t believe something bad will happen if I don’t pick one up, but I never leave the beach without one.
Most of us do these things knowing they will not magically change any outcomes, but we do them anyway. Just to be sure? Hedging our bets? I have three dreamcatchers at home: one bought to soothe a grandchild who was spooked by noises in the woods outside the window when he slept over. A second one hangs in my workroom, and the third — small, delicate, with a silver feather attached– hangs from a light over my bed. Do I believe that dream bits really are tangled in their webs? Of course not.
Maybe it becomes a superstition when you feel you HAVE to do whatever it is you have to do. Like those athletes, who, while they are on a hitting streak don’t shave, or change their underwear, afraid it will change some cosmic balance and end the streak. Or the actors who won’t say “good luck” for fear of bad luck, so they say “break a leg”instead; and because too many stage calamities are connected to it, never say “Macbeth,” calling it “the Scottish play.”
The bottom line: By the time we are adults we know how capricious life can be, and superstitions may give comfort, or an illusion of power in powerless situations. Read “loss.” Read “death.”
So, aside from having to cope with obsessions and compulsions (like feeling you have to tap your foot ten times before going out the front door) what’s wrong with entertaining some superstitions? Frankly, now that I am in the third third of my life, would it be such a bad idea to hold my nose when we ride past a cemetery?