It was Thursday, well past the witching hour. I was on my way to the gym, the silent back roads lit only by the cold white light of an occasional street lamp. As I approached an intersection, something darker than the surrounding night dashed out from the woods in front of my car, stopping just long enough to fix bright green eyes on me before continuing into the thick brush on the other side.
A black cat.
And it had crossed my path.
Of course, being a rational person, this didn’t cause me to turn back the way I’d come and find an alternate route. Yet I was clearly still aware of the superstition associated with the incident. And it occurred to me that this awareness did have a subtle effect on my emotions. I drove onward as I normally would have; but some part of me felt I was doing so despite the superstition. And that would seem to indicate that the superstition had credence, if only in a residual way.
In other words, it seems to me that we don’t do things despite other things, unless those other things are perceived to hold some power or sway.
We wouldn’t say, “We had the picnic despite the forecast” — unless we perceived that the forecast had at least the potential to disrupt our plans.
Back to the example of the black cat crossing our path, it’s almost as if some small part of us feels we’ve accepted a dare, and that by crossing that path, we’re somehow giving the proverbial finger to the universe, proving we’re not one to be controlled by such nonsense.
No one could deny that we don’t have the same reaction when, say, a squirrel or turkey crosses our path. It wouldn’t even occur to us to think such a thing. Why? Because, well … we really don’t believe squirrels or turkeys crossing our path makes a lick of difference.
I guess what I’m saying is that all of us are affected to some degree — maybe even more than we might be aware — by voices from our past.
Culture. Society. Family. Religion. Media.
And no matter how reasonable we might be, we never entirely shake those influences.
Another example: in the last two weeks, I’m fairly certain I’ve heard at least three grown adults whom I consider to be intelligent, rational people relay to me with grim acceptance, “Well, you know what they say … bad things happen in threes.”
Even I myself, in that same stretch of time, had my wallet stolen and bank card charged up. Last night, on my way to see a movie, I got yet another call from the fraud department of a card that has never left my possession, telling me that someone in Florida had racked up nearly $1000 on the card, and had even gone so far as to access my account and change my address, mother’s maiden name and other details. And just before I sat down to start writing this post, my check-engine light came on for the first time since I’ve owned this car.
Now, if pressed on the issue, most of us wouldn’t voice support for the idea that a superstition like “bad things happen in threes” is rational. Who or what would be in charge of managing such a “rule”? And why?
And yet, if we’re honest, here again, we have to admit that a teeny tiny part of our emotional self has heard the words so many times that we wind up “shrugging off” such things: which can only mean that we’d felt they had climbed on, somehow, in the first place.
So where am I going with all of this discussion on superstition?
Well, it also occurred to me that black cats and other bad luck aren’t the only “collective voices” we’re in the continual process of needing to “shrug off.”
I was talking with a young man earlier this week. During our discussion, he made claims about himself that included such things:
- “I’m terrible with details.”
- “I forget everything.”
- “I guess I’m just dumb.”
And at different points, after listening to him talk, I’d challenge him:
- “You just told me that you read and compare medical reports on natural remedies and supplements. So are you really terrible with details?”
- “You don’t forget to come to work. Ever. And you’re good at your job, even though you haven’t been there long. So do you really forget everything?”
- “Every time I see you, you’re reading a new philosophy book or telling me your thoughts on comparative religion. Dumb people don’t do that. So why do you say you are ‘dumb’?”
In each instance, he’d pause and then backpedal a bit. But only in a qualifying sense: “Well, I don’t forget that” or “Well, I’m not dumb in that area, but …”
And the deeper I dug, the more I realized that each erroneous belief was rooted in collective voices from his past, things he’d heard or believed residually for so long that they felt true and powerful to him, even in the face of logical evidence to the contrary.
In other words, it seemed to me that he had certain superstitions about himself — that he was in a constant state of imbalance, trying to scramble around darting black cats that were shadow puppets of others’ making.
Perhaps you’ve made the leap with me so far, from “silly” cultural superstitions to personal ones. You’ve been willing to accept that maybe you’ve been hard on yourself in some areas that, if you take a close look at them, are just plain malarkey.
Don’t get too comfortable just yet.
Is it possible that, whether wittingly or unwittingly, you yourself are letting loose some black cats into other people’s pathways?
Take prejudice, for example. Surely, you don’t consider yourself prejudiced, do you? I’m going to suggest that there may yet be superstitions lurking within your inner self where others are concerned.
For instance, might even a seemingly reasonable self-statement such as “I’m not prejudiced against [_______]” hold similarities to continuing to drive “despite” the black cat?
Put another way, I wonder if such claims may be more akin to “I’m open-minded and evolved enough to accept other people even though they are black / Latino / gay / Muslim / poor (i.e., “not like me,” who is the assumed standard of normal).”
I accept people even though.
I guess what I’m suggesting is that the mere acknowledgement of such categorizations is evidence that socialization has in fact accounted for some of our thinking. [Even the labels I myself chose to include identify thinking associated with a particular assumed readership.] Ergo, some of that thinking — may be flawed and thus in need of adjustment.
Small children, when they accept another child, don’t think in terms of “I like them even though …” If you were to ask them to tell you why they accept someone else, they’d respond with something like, “Um … because they’re nice” or they’d roll their shoulder and say, “I dunno” and go skipping off.
No matter how old, how educated, how enlightened any of us may consider ourselves (or may actually even be, in relative terms) we’ve all got faulty beliefs. It’s part of being human, of living in a world with other humans. We influence — and we are influenced.
It seems to me that real wisdom isn’t reaching some pinnacle of perfection, but rather being honest enough to continually assess our ideas. To never become so attached to a mindset that we can no longer admit where we might have been wrong — and to let go. To adapt. To grow.