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Prompted By Superstition

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Here I go again.  Just two weeks ago, in response to the Pandemic prompt, I wrote a piece that focused on uncertainty. One of the comments thanked me for my analysis of the crisis in “highbrow economic terms”.  I noted that during this crisis I’ve let my highbrows grow.  They’re still growing.  And once again my topic is uncertainty.  Because, after all, isn’t superstition just a tool for managing uncertainty?

Seems to me that Covid-19 has set the stage for the emergence of new superstitions.

Now, perhaps, many or most of us associate superstition with bad juju: broken mirrors, black cats, walking under ladders, the number ‘13’ etc.  But superstition abounds in “positive” situations, too.  Venture into a casino and check out the people at slot machines.  Many seem to hold amulets in one hand while they pull the handle with the other.  Or they grip the handle in unusual ways – fingers only; thumb and two fingers, etc.  Presumably all in the belief that such little things give an edge.  And sporting events?   Fuhgeddaboutit.  Lucky shirts.  Hats.  Fully in evidence in the crowds watching the event live.  And the people watching on television at home?  Still more, probably many more, emboldened by the supposition that what one does in one’s home goes unnoticed.   McDonald’s created an ad that ran last year during football season featuring a fan, alone, seated on a couch, watching a game.  His team is doing well; the doorbell rings, it’s GrubHub or some other delivery person with the fan’s McDonald’s order;  the fan starts to rise to answer the door, the team’s fortunes suddenly reverse; he quickly sits down and those fortunes shift positive; then up, bad and down, good.  Finally, he just calls out “it’s open” so he can remain seated for the sake of his team.

And moi?  But of course, but I’ll not reveal my secrets.  Who knows what spies be among us?

But back to the bad juju.  Like coronavirus.  Has there been a more threatening and uncertain time in our lifetimes?  One that affects the broad population?  Certainly, the Vietnam War qualifies, but the threat then varied more than a little based on gender and socioeconomic status.*  The Cuban missile crisis threatened us all equally, but that terror passed in a matter of twelve or so days. Coronavirus has been rampant for as many as six months and there’s no sign of abatement.  And the nature of the terror is evolving, both in the ways that the virus attacks its victims – bilateral pneumonia, and then clotting threats and then inflammatory reactions – and the demographics of the victims – first the elderly and medically at risk, now children. Seems to me that Covid-19 has set the stage for the emergence of new superstitions.  But what will they be?  I think the only certainty in this uncertainty is that such superstitions will embrace acts and rituals of absolutely zero empirical utility.  Mask type?  Color?  Pattern?  Dietary do’s and don’ts (as modulated by rolling scarcities of foodstuffs)?  Video habits? Stay tuned.  Or not.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

* Of course, family and other loved ones suffered upon the death of “their” soldier; I’m limiting this to the direct risk of death.

 

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Yes Tom, uncertainty is certainly the word for this scary time.
    Reading and writing helps keep me on track and sane, thanx for your read!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    You are right Tom, superstition tries to manage uncertainty. We are currently living in a time of almost unprecedented uncertainty, made worse by our leaders who don’t believe in, or respect the science if it makes them, or their business “facts” look bad. So, compounded by the Internet, social networks, conspiracy theories are taking hold. Those are the new superstitions; even more dangerous, as all our lives are at stake.

  3. Marian says:

    Fascinating to make the connection between superstition, threats, and uncertainty, Tom. Your story brings to mind, for some reason, the little game we played as children called Ring Around the Rosy. The last line as you skipped in a circle was “ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” This is a distortion of the sound for a sneeze (achoo), and is a reference to the plague, one of the odd symptoms of which was sneezing, and falling down references death. I wonder what strange rhymes and songs will come out of Covid-19?

    • I remember the game, Marian. You mention the plague; I wonder if it might have instead come about in the 1918 Pandemic. I’m reading a book by that name currently and it’s uncanny the similarities between the way that disease presented and Covid 19.

  4. Suzy says:

    Well, I am proud to be the person who gave you the straight line for your joke about letting your highbrows grow. And you have given us another interesting thinkpiece here. But I can’t conceal my disappointment that you are not willing to write about your own superstitions. Because you have announced that you won’t reveal them, I suddenly feel an overpowering need to know. If I ever meet you in person, I will make you talk!

    • Isn’t one of the classic lines in The Princess Bride “get used to disappointment”? Mine are not “superstitions” they are “practices”; they all relate to my support of certain sports teams. And they are benign. And stupid.

  5. Thought provoking as usual, Tom. In addition to uncertainty, I think superstition is also a byproduct of suspicion. Suspicion has survival value, but it can morph into superstition. In these uncertain times, it’s easy to fall back on our lizard brain survival instincts such as aggression and fear, fight or flight. Conspiracy theories and paranoia are rife. Superstition isn’t far behind; witch hunts are an easy scenario to imagine especially with who’s running the show right now. I think evidence of this will certainly play out in our popular culture. Kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers — sleeping, the pods, the garbage trucks. It will be interesting to see how it manifests. Stay tuned indeed.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    I am a bit late to the comments here, so I can simply agree with the thoughts already expressed above. As you and Betsy noted, uncertainty breeds superstition. And there are most definitely “good” and “bad” superstitions as we try to manage uncertainty, even if irrationally so.

    Also, much as I would love to know your superstitions — or “practices,” if you must — I respect your reluctance to share them. Isn’t this really just a corollary of the point Suzy made in her story that if you tell what you wished for it won’t come true? Plus, if you told me your superstitions and your team played my team, I could use that knowledge to my advantage.

    • Well I’ll share one, ‘cuz I know that we’re both Sox fans and, obviously, Crimson fans; not sure about NFL copaceticity. Here goes: an ex-wife used to recite a favorite couplet, “when things are bad and getting worse, put a cookie in your purse.” I don’t carry a purse. But when things aren’t going well for one of my teams (and I’m watching on TV) I must turn it off and leave the room. They won’t win with me looking.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I am curious what superstitions evolve, if any, to ward off the coronavirus. Of course, it appears our fearless leader has a few. Never wear a mask, for one. Also, try (or promote) an unproven drug, perhaps because your company owns some of its stock? I can really relate to the sporting ones, however. As soon as I entered the room where my husband was watching say the Bears back in the pre-Covid era, they would start to lose. Superstition or bad teams?

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