When You Believe in Things That You Don’t Understand

I’ve never thought of myself as the type of person 25% of folks in the U.S. truly claim to be, but because I have indulged in some questionable behaviors, I fit the description. For instance, I have crossed my fingers when hoping for a positive outcome.  I have knocked on wood to avoid jinxing something.  And I have made more than a few wishes playing tug of war with someone on the other side of a wishbone.  I even have gone as far as saying, “Bless you,” to friends and strangers alike when they’ve sneezed.

All considered superstitions, they have been a part of the American culture as well as cultures worldwide for centuries. Defined as commonly held, but unjustified beliefs in supernatural causes that lead to consequences of actions or events based on those beliefs, superstitions, perhaps arose from the simple desire to understand why. People inherently have a need to exert control over their environment, so when a natural cause can’t be found to explain an occurence, some may attribute it to fate, supernatural forces, even magic. In other words, otherworldly things.

Most people have heard of the superstitions like beginner’s luck, not walking under a ladder, and the dreaded Friday the 13th. And although they are labeled as superstitions, there may be some reasoning behind how they began and why they still exist. Take beginner’s luck. We all know it’s the idea that a more experienced person is more likely to win at a game, activity, or sport, versus a person trying it out for the first time. But, when a novice actually does better, it may be that they are simply less stressed about the result, helping them gain the edge. Avoiding walking under a ladder may have come about because when leaning against a wall a triangle is formed. In Christianity, the triangle, if you will, represents the Holy Trinity, so it’s thought that walking under a ladder would break the triangle deeming the person sacrilegious. That being said, it’s still probably not a good idea to walk under a ladder.

And a person who is afraid of Friday the 13th, either referred to as a friggatriskaidekaphobic or a paraskevidekatriaphobic (try saying either three times fast, or even slow – I dare you…I triple dog dare you!) may fear the date for various reasons. Rational? Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps, something bad occurred on a Friday that fell on the 13th of a month and that negative incident became linked in their mind, despite nothing bad happening on any other Friday the 13th. In the Christian faith, Friday has long been viewed as unlucky as Jesus died on a Friday and throughout history the number 13 has been considered the same. Maybe you’ve been in a multi-storied building and when going to press the floor you wanted you noticed there was no 13th floor. Spooky! In different parts of the world, other numbers are feared. In Japan, it is four and nine because of the how they sound when pronounced. And in Italy, 17 is avoided as the Roman numeral for 17 is XVII, an anagram of which is VIXI. This translates to “I have lived” – past tense, hence suggesting death.  Superstitions really do abound – all around!

From my journal: May 13, 1993  Rolling Hills Estates, California

“Have malachite in my pocketbook. Always take it when traveling.”

Was I being superstitious when I took my gemstone along for the ride?  On that particular trip I was flying cross country from Los Angeles to visit my sister and her husband who lived in North Carolina at the time. Then, I headed north to western Massachusetts to spend time with my Mom and brothers in my hometown. Phew! After each segment of this trek, I wrote in my journal that I had made it “safe and sound”.  Did the malachite keep me safe?  Did I really believe it would? Or was it more of a comfort thing?  Kind of like rubbing a worry stone in uneasy times.

According to Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at New York University, being superstitious is a common behavior that can be beneficial. She says that it can relieve stress and help people cope with anxiety.  So, there you have it.  If like me, you’ve ever picked up a penny you saw lying on the ground, or crossed the street when you saw a black cat (in my case, I have to as I’m allergic), or you waited until you got outside to open up that umbrella, rest assured, you are okay. A.O.K. In fact, you’re probably in good company.

Going forward, I will still continue to make a wish when blowing out my birthday candles, I will still avoid stepping on cracks in sidewalks, and I will still carry my guardian angel token in my purse. Not because I believe they will bring me good luck or keep me away from bad luck, but because they are my little rituals. They are fun. They put me at ease. They make me smile. And, if that makes me superstitious, then so be it.

2 thoughts on “When You Believe in Things That You Don’t Understand

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