Serena Williams bounces the ball 5 times before a serve. Charles Dickens slept facing North. Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian step on a plane with their right foot first. Lucille Ball wouldn’t stay in a hotel with pictures of birds.
The other day, I started chanting ‘step on a crack you break your mother’s back’ while walking down the street. My gait shifted as I veered clear of the lines which would render Mum a paraplegic.
I never think of myself as superstitious, until I start knocking on wood, or scrambled to find something blue on my wedding day. Or every time I bless someone after they sneeze.
The current state of uncertainty is enough to make anyone superstitious.
I wash my hands singing ‘happy birthday’ exactly twice in my head, not speeding up or stumbling over syllables, it must be sung perfectly lest I catch the plague or unleash it on everyone I love. One incorrect note might make the incantation useless.
Superstition, which comes from the Latin, ‘super’ and ‘stand’, has its roots in religion. Thirteen is the number of guests at the Last Supper, which happened on a Friday.
There’s a video going around of a Chinese fortune-teller showing how you can instill your face mask with extra protection by spelling out characters with your ‘sword fingers’ in the Taoist tradition.
I grew up in a Christian family, belief in a God who could be moved through prayer to intervene in our lives — or not. Depends if you went to church that week, or were pure of heart, or tithed, or prayed hard enough.
Or so I thought.
I don’t think of God like a slot-machine anymore. Bad things happen to good people and it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
After allowing Job to endure death and disease all around him, when Job complains that he is a good man who doesn’t deserve to suffer, God demands Job tell him the first thing he knows about the universe:
“Have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things, explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean? Do you have one clue regarding death’s dark mysteries?” (Job 38:16–18 MSG)
It’s an appealing thought, that we are the axis on which the universe turns; that we an iota of control over cosmic forces dependent on our actions.
After all, every fragment of our lives is subject to our fine-toothed curation.
When disaster consumes us like a tidal wave and the stark reality of our existence is laid bare, there’s little to cling to but platitudes, or superstition. ‘Pain and suffering are the soil of strength and courage” (Lurlene McDaniel), “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Anonymous)
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Maybe I’ll just wash my hands a bit harder or carry that blue stone in my pocket. And definitely bless anyone who sneezes (preferably away from me).
For me, I cling tight to the illusion of control because the alternative is that the world is random and reckless and doesn’t care how good you are. You could end up a statistic tomorrow.
But this is not sustainable.
When I’m anxious, I find it strangely comforting to walk through worst-case scenarios. Worst case scenario; I lose my job. I am bankrupt. Worst case scenario; I’m in an accident that leaves me paralysed.
I go to these places and shine a light around. They’re not so dark and scary anymore. I’m certain I would encounter angels along the way to help me through.
And so, I shine a light on death.
Whatever you believe about the afterlife (if any), death will be a break from the torments of this world. The disease and famine and endless reams of suffering and uncertainty.
When I accept the ultimate loss of control, my death is inevitable, I can weather the storms.
Without death, sunsets aren’t as vibrant. The changing landscape of clouds isn’t as interesting, the moments of love not as profound.
The finality of life creates gratitude, as we’re learning in this time of fear. We value what we stand to lose. As Queen Lizzie said, ‘grief is the price we pay for love’.
Montaigne wrote, ‘life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing?’
Choose freedom in your thoughts, not to despair over the loss of control but embrace the storm as one of the many textures of life.
Control is an illusion; it always has been. There will a clearing, a sunrise, whether in this life or the next.
Just watch out for those cracks.
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