Friday, March 23, 2007

A Whole Bowl of Sad

I haven't posted all week, for which I apologize. A close friend lost her mother and, considering the events of the past two months and my own history, I've been too overwhelmed by sad to post anything approaching coherent.

Paradoxically, although I consider myself a rationalist, I'm extremely superstitious: salt over the shoulder, spitting to ward off the evil eye, not walking under a ladder. I always feel slightly embarrassed when I do these things, but I do them compulsively; one might even say religiously, if it didn't give the acts pagan connotations (connotations which they already carry in droves). From where do these superstitions arise? As with everything, I trace the roots to my childhood. My parents, my mother in particular, were both very superstitious. My mom once scolded me emphatically for "jinxing" her (you know, when you both say the same thing at the same time and one of you says "Jinx!" and fun and hilarity ensues until someone says their name five times? Neither funny nor hilarious when you're mother flips her shit over it). Once she had regained her composure (it happened quickly; she was a very easy-going woman, ordinarily), she explained superstition to me. I couldn't have been older than five or six, but I remember that moment vividly. I especially remember her fear. To put the event in context, I always think of this interaction occurring right before she got sick, although I know that's impossible.

My father's superstitions were more insidious and, thus, more dangerous. He believes that if too many good things happen, bad is due. Counter-intuitively, he also believes that bad things herald more bad things: bad things occur in threes (at the very least).

Why this long soliloquy about superstition? Because if bad things do, in fact, come in threes, then what's next? I'm already exhausted from this series of unfortunate events. And I am wary to live my life fearing the good because it indicates that I am due for misfortune. Nor do I believe with the small (silent) rational part of my brain that the one necessarily follows the other. It's been a long time since I believed in the reward/punishment heuristic argued over in Job and Qohelet. How, then, do I maintain the illusion of control over the bad things? Spitting, throwing salt, avoiding ladders.

Like so many other things, superstitions are a way to order our world, to feel some sort of control over the chaos that leaks in through the cracks of our day to day reality. We tend to look askance on superstition because the acts it entails are so patently absurd; yet, considering the ritualistic and symbolic acts in which many of us engage in the name of religion, renders that judgment small-minded, if not marginally hypocritical. Unless, of course, you believe the distinction that God ordains the one and condemns the other, in which case, you are fully within your rights to look askance on superstition, and I am fully within my rights to disagree with your distinction.

I once had a discussion with the Queen of the World's friend, the Baltimore Rabbi, after he saw me do the salt thing. He asked me why I bothered (in the context of my religious views or, to be clear, my areligious views). I explained that we encounter life initially in the language and modes of our parents, before framing our own. That so much of the way we engage is arbitrary, based on an accident of birth and belief, that to decry on form over another, particularly when you have no myth surrounding the acts, no illusion as to their power, is as arbitrary as the forms themselves. We go through life doing all manner of odd things. Throwing salt seems relatively harmless; but now I wonder, is it? I say I have no illusion as to their power, yet I do them in the hope that they'll somehow exert power, in the slim useless hope that they'll affect my outcomes. Stripped of religion, stripped of God, stripped of the illusion of control, my fears confront me naked, unarmed. Where do I go from here? In what do I clothe myself?

Confidential to my Traveling Companion: I cannot express how sad I am for your loss and how much I wish I had the means to comfort you, although I know nothing can. Our love and thoughts are with you and your family.


Sherbs said...

I come from an extremely unsuperstitious family (I guess it's the science thing running through my dad's mind at all times), but every so often, my mom channels her grandmother and does things "just because." Whenever I had a button that needed sewing or a seam that needed a bit of mending and I was wearing the article of clothing, my mom made me chew a piece of thread, lest I sew up my brains. That's what her grandmother made her do. No matter how "silly" it sounded. And I never walked on a crack, for fear I may break my mother's back until I was, like, 15, because once I did with my mother around and she yelled at me.

And I'm sorry to hear of your loss.

The Pedant said...

I now tell kids that "jinx" me that I believe in the one true deity and He protects me from the curses of wizards and the deprecations of lesser powers.

Whether or not I use the word "deprecations," they are not appreciative of my theological counter-strike.

DK said...


I would caution that acting on superstition through ritual empowers its hold on you more than it provides order.

I am specifically interested in what you said about your "own history" : please do not feel obligated to answer that either publicly or privately -- I am just interested if you want to share, that's all.

That is awful about your friend's loss, and I am sure your friend is grateful to have such an empathetic friend in you.