Superstitions Exorcised By Clear Thinking

It seems obvious that those of us who insist we're not superstitious would never go to a fortune-teller, participate in a séance, enlist the aid of a psychic to solve a crime, visit religious shrines, engage in religious healing rituals or exorcisms, or try to make contact with dead loved ones.

Many of us who deny we're superstitious might however participate in little social rituals without even thinking about it. What harm can it do?

We might throw salt over our left shoulder or knock on wood for good luck. We might avoid walking under a ladder, just in case. We might at least think about the possibility that something bad might happen if a black cat crosses our path. If we’re honest we might have to admit counting to see how old we'll be when the seven years of bad luck are up if we break a mirror. And we might read our horoscope in the daily newspaper just for the fun of it. What harm can it do?

We might think, just for a moment that it wasn't mere coincidence when thoughts of a friend popped into our head moments before the phone rang and that very friend was on the line.

Most of us don’t really believe the "fortunes" contained in fortune cookies are authentic predictions of our future do we? Of course not. So there's no reason to take them seriously. We know it's just a game we play, like reading our horoscopes in the paper. It's just for fun. What's the harm?

Most of the cookies don’t contain "fortunes" anyway, just little sayings like "You are careful and systematic in business arrangements," or "Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life." A real fortune is supposed to predict something that will happen to you in the future, like "You will win the lottery if you buy your ticket at the Pick n Save Store on 60th and Capitol Drive in Green Bay, Wisconsin at 6:30 A.M. on October 16th 2004". Now that's a fortune! It might be real tempting for even the most non-superstitious person to be at that store on the designated date to buy a ticket, just in case.

I don’t much care for the taste of fortune cookies, so I don’t usually eat them. I used to read the messages though. They provided a bit of entertainment, especially when I was dining with a group of people who'd take turns reading them out loud. Sometimes we attached the phrase "in bed" to the end of the saying and laughed raucously to demonstrate that we didn't take the "fortune" seriously.

I’m not usually superstitious, that is I don’t have a lot of irrational beliefs, that I know of. So you can imagine my chagrin when I got taken in by my own little ritual.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I played this little trick on myself. I wouldn't eat the fortune cookies with the sayings inside. Those are not authentic fortunes. If the cookie had a real fortune inside, but it was one I didn't like, I didn't eat it. I played this game where I decided I had some control over whether or not the fortune would come true; all based on whether or not I ate the cookie. If I liked the fortune, I had to eat the cookie.

I confess, I ate the cookie containing the message, "You will have good times with your family." without a second thought. That seemed harmless enough. However, I really had to face my superstition (and my fuzzy thinking) head on when I encountered a fortune that read, "And you shall be above want". After quickly gobbling my cookie, I sat back and thought about what I had just done, about being superstitious and about the meaning of my fortune. How could anyone wish for more than to be above want? Then it hit me, having everything I want might not be such a good thing, to be above want meant I would desire nothing. Being above want is the same as being dead. I may just as well stay in bed for the rest of my life because there’s no reason to get up.

Now what would I do? I’d already eaten the crummy cookie. I was experiencing a heavy-duty conflict here. It seemed I had two choices. I could stay in bed for the rest of my life, or I could discard my superstition. Well, I’m not dead yet, and I’m not confined to my bed. And, I no longer eat fortune cookies simply because I don’t like the taste of them.

In a culture riddled with little superstitious rituals it's easy to see how we can become lazy or fuzzy in our thinking. This was clearly demonstrated to me when I heard the following story. A young man who was told he would not be allowed to give a religious proselytizing speech at his graduation stood silently in front of a podium for a moment before he sneezed. The immediate response from the audience, some of whom no doubt were agnostics, atheists, brights, free thinkers, secular humanists or wiccans, was to say in unison, "God bless you."

Critical thinking is hard work and we're not always on guard. We're all susceptible to the draw of social norms and irrational beliefs. It takes a lot of effort to break the bad habits of fuzzy thinking.

—M. LaCourt

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